Sprint: Our dedicated spectrum for small cells is key

Sprint’s John Saw (Sprint)
Sprint CTO John Saw

Sprint’s ability to use dedicated spectrum for small cells is a key weapon as it continues to densify its network, CTO John Saw said yesterday.

The No. 4 U.S. mobile network operator continues to tout the benefits of its 2.5 GHz airwaves, which are particularly well suited for increasing capacity in the densely populated areas in which small cells are most effective. Saw, when asked at an investors conference how Sprint’s strategy with small cells differed from those of its competitors, said the company’s sizable spectrum assets enable it to leverage airwaves strictly for those transmitters.

“The big (difference) is, coming back to the most important asset that I have—that not many people have—is that because of the amount of spectrum I have, our small cells will be operating on dedicated spectrum that is not being shared or used with the macro sites,” he claimed, according to a SeekingAlpha transcript. “I don’t think many carriers can afford to do that, but at Sprint we can, and that is a good thing to do because you don’t have to worry about interference. You don’t have to worry about expending a lot of energy and resources and trying to mitigate against interference.”

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The carrier recently installed 200 small cells in Manhattan, and Saw said the deployment has performed “fabulously better than what we expected” thanks to the dedicated spectrum. “The macro sites don’t even know it is there until the network does a lot of balancing across the small cells and macro cells.”

More than half of Sprint’s LTE traffic is being carried on its 2.5 GHz spectrum, which CFO Tarek Robbiati said last month will be the “bedrock” for its 5G efforts. And the carrier is using those airwaves for more than just delivering data: It raised $3.5 billion by placing 14% of its spectrum into three vehicles that will lease the airwaves back to Sprint under a long-term agreement in a move that saved the carrier more than $170 million. It recently unveiled plans to double down on that strategy, potentially raising another $3.5 billion in a second tranche.

And the operator continues to maintain that its spectrum holdings will enable it to meet ever-increasing demand for mobile data, increasing capacity while minimizing the need for hefty capex investments.

“So when you have a lot of spectrum as a carrier you have the flexibility to actually keep adding capacity via adding more spectrum,” Saw said. “If you don't have that then you have to result to more expensive means -- you have to do cell splits or do more cell sites. In the case of Sprint, with our ample spectrum capacity we can add capacity all day long at cell sites.”