Sprint pleased with network densification, mainly focused on small cells for now, but mum on many details

Sprint (NYSE: S) is seeing positive early results from its plans to densify its network, but the company's executives did not provide many details about how far along the project is and how long it will take.

Sprint's network densification project, which the carrier has dubbed the "Next Generation Network," is intended to increase coverage and capacity across the network. Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has said that "nearly all" of Sprint's existing macro cell sites will be upgraded to support 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz for LTE. Sprint also intends to deploy thousands of new macro cell sites and tens of thousands of small cells.  

"We're also excited about the early progress on the densification plans to further differentiate our network in the future. Most of the activity today has been on activities for our small cell deployments and we're very pleased with the early progress," Claure said on the company's earnings conference call today. "We continue to be extremely surgical to maximize network performance as well as the efficiency of capital and operating costs. We're confident that this plan will deliver the capacity, speeds and coverage to position Sprint for network parity or superiority over the next two years. And by unleashing our unique depth of spectrum we will be best positioned of all carriers for the growing data demands of the future."

Claure said Sprint's network teams have been "doing a lot of optimization work." He noted that Sprint doesn't "share our plans with all the network companies," referring to tower companies and said that Sprint is "using in many cases alternate vendors in the densification." Sprint has declined to name its vendor partners for its densification project.

"I can report that we have steady progress and we're very happy with the results we have so far as we continue to build our network," Claure said.

During the third quarter Sprint said it continued to deploy two-channel (2x20 MHz) carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band, which melds together blocks of spectrum to produce more capacity and higher data speed. The deployment is ongoing in 80 markets across the country. In the past Sprint has named Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and San Francisco as some major markets where the deployment is ongoing. Sprint currently has 12 devices that are capable of accessing two-channel carrier aggregation, including the iPhone 6s and new Samsung Galaxy S6 models.

Claure noted that PC Magazine looked at speed test results for LTE connections on Sprint iPhones in early October, finding average download speeds on the two new devices were 50 percent faster than the iPhone 6 from 2014, which did not support two-channel carrier aggregation, and that the iPhone 6s demonstrated real-world peak speeds of more than 120 Mbps.

Additionally, Claure also said that network testing firm RootMetrics awarded Sprint almost 55 percent more first-place (outright or shared) "RootScore Awards" for overall performance, network reliability, speed, data, call or text network performance in the 54 metro markets measured so far in the second half of 2015 compared to the year-ago period. RootMetrics also saw Sprint's median downlink speeds in these markets increase by 66 percent on average from the year-ago period.

"It's [a] combination of many different factors, but obviously the strong foundation of Network Vision has served its purposes," Claure said. "I can tell you that our network is performing better than ever."

Claure noted that Nielsen looks at how consumers are using mobile devices, and that applications such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram and Snapchat make up more than two-thirds of the usage of Sprint customers. Claure said Nielsen found that Sprint's download speeds for these apps from April to September surpassed AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), with significant gains coming from Sprint's carrier aggregation deployment.

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