Sprint preps Atlanta for 5G with Massive MIMO deployment

Sprint
Sprint was already installing Massive MIMO gear in Atlanta last year. (Sprint)

Sprint’s “bridge to 5G”—a technology known as Massive MIMO—is going to be out in full force during the Super Bowl in Atlanta next month.

“It’s full of all kinds of goodness,” said Heather Campbell, network director for the southeast region at Sprint. “It’s allowing us to really get into the full benefits of everything our 2.5 spectrum can do. We’ve deployed 2.5 across Atlanta before on LTE, but through Massive MIMO, we’re able to really get into the nooks and crannies of that channel and utilize every bit of that to get more capacity.”

Sprint is still running tests to see what kinds of speeds people can expect when they attend the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the big game on Feb. 3, but suffice it to say its network will be able to carry more people at high speeds, so the average user experience will be more consistent. Latency—a key tenet of 5G—is improving with Massive MIMO, but it will get really “fantastic” when 5G gets rolled out, she said.

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The infrastructure in Atlanta is being supplied by Ericsson, and the small cells are coming from a variety of vendors. Sprint has also doubled network capacity at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and is providing service for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. Major traffic corridors have been upgraded with tri-band gear: 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz, and it’s installing Massive MIMO on those sites. Dozens of small cells have been deployed for more capacity downtown, and distributed antenna systems (DAS) have been added to key hotels.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—From Sprint to T-Mobile, what’s all the fuss about massive MIMO?

But it’s the Massive MIMO technology that seems to be getting most of the attention. The radios Sprint is deploying are capable of both Massive MIMO and 5G—"it’s a software upgrade for us to evolve that radio into 5G,” Campbell told FierceWirelessTech.

These are split mode radios that are capable of providing both 4G and 5G service, with 128 antenna elements. That compares to the typical cell site equipment that has only eight transceivers and eight transmitters. And even though they’re called “massive,” they are far from it, she said. “It’s actually smaller in size than our current 2.5 deployment,” and the radio and antenna are combined into one box, making them more aesthetically pleasing—and generally better accepted in most jurisdictions.

Upgrading to 5G will not require a tower climb. “That’s why we’re really excited about that radio, because once it’s up there, we can do so much with it,” without having to go climb a structure, take it down and put something else up there, she said. “It blends in better with the aesthetics.”

Atlanta will be one of the first commercial 5G markets for Sprint in the first half of this year. “That’s not a coincidence,” she noted. As part of Sprint’s strategic planning for 5G, it considered the Super Bowl, the size of markets and more. “It’s not a coincidence we have Massive MIMO ready for the Super Bowl and that Atlanta is one of our first markets. This is very intentional” and shows the extent of investment it’s making in Atlanta.

It’s worth noting the upgrades are designed to be permanent, so residents will get the benefits long after the big game is over. Of course, it’s anybody’s guess what happens if and/or when T-Mobile’s combination with Sprint gets approved and executed, but Sprint until that time has to act as its own entity, and the plan is for the upgrades to stay put. The 5G part does require 5G-capable phones to use the 5G signal; Sprint will launch 5G phones this year, but it’s not saying anything more about that now.

RELATED: Massive MIMO to play role in T-Mobile/Sprint 5G readiness

A spokesperson confirmed that Sprint is not using LTE Licensed Assisted Access (LTE-LAA), but T-Mobile is using LAA in Atlanta and elsewhere. The “uncarrier” has been a big proponent of LAA since it was first proposed, and it has deployed more than 300 small cells—most of them enabled by LAA—and 20 new DAS configurations throughout Atlanta.

In fact, T-Mobile said Mercedes-Benz Stadium was updated with the highest capacity DAS on T-Mobile’s network, with 50% more capacity than the next largest stadium, and its first outdoor C-RAN system in the tailgating and events areas. C-RAN improves network performance in high-traffic scenarios and can even extend the battery life on smartphones, T-Mobile said.

RELATED: Super Bowl shines light on selfies, speed claims and 5G

Of course, all the major carriers tend to use the Super Bowl to strut their latest stuff. Last year, Verizon made a memorable 5G splash when then-CEO Lowell McAdam conducted a video call from Minneapolis to Korea Telecom CEO Chang-Gyu Hwang in Seoul, Korea, using prototype 5G tablets.

As for AT&T, its enhancements supported the use of more than 7.2 terabytes of data in and around U.S. Bank Stadium during last year’s big game.

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