Sprint's next challenge is touting the 4G difference

Sue Marek

LAS VEGAS--There was certainly a lot of discussion about 4G technologies at this week's CTIA Wireless conference here. We heard from both camps--LTE and mobile WiMAX--about the progress being made on the deployment front.

But it quickly became clear to me that operators are not just plotting the technology side of their 4G deployments (whether mobile WiMAX or LTE), but are already strategizing about how to differentiate their 4G offerings from the competition. And operators seem to understand that it's going to take more than just touting the higher speeds and capacity gains from 4G to make customers jump to the new services.

Sprint Nextel has probably been the most vocal with its 4G marketing message. CEO Dan Hesse has referred to 2010 as "the year of 4G" and emphasized the company's plan to use mobile WiMAX's headstart on LTE to get as many customers on the network as possible. In December, Hesse appointed Matt Carter, the head of the firm's Boost Mobile prepaid initiative, to head up the Sprint 4G unit and bring his marketing muscle to the nascent endeavor.

I sat down with Carter yesterday to talk about his vision for Sprint 4G, and to see how Sprint will differentiate its 4G offering from the competition, particularly the other mobile WiMAX partners such as Comcast, Time Warner and Clearwire's Clear brand, which will also be selling WiMAX service in the same markets. 

Carter doesn't see Sprint's mobile WiMAX partners as competitors but as a team that together is helping build consumer awareness of 4G. And he also believes the partners have different strategies so they won't necessarily draw from the same pool of customers. For example, the cable companies are really looking at mobile WiMAX as a way to extend their existing services beyond the home, while Sprint is hoping to attract new customers and retain existing customers with a splashy, high-speed data offering. Initially I think Carter's assessment is correct, however I do believe in the long run we will see these partners begin to battle for the same customers.

Further, Carter says Sprint's key marketing challenge is going to be showing customers that 4G is better than 3G. "We have to paint this experience and show them why 4G is better and different," Carter said.  And he likened it to showing customers the difference between analog TV and HDTV. "The regular TV experience is fine, but only because you don't know better. Once you see HDTV and devices like flat-screen TVs, which make the experience better, you understand the difference." 

That's why Sprint is putting so much effort into its new Android-based HTC mobile WiMAX phone, the Evo 4G. Carter describes the device, which will be released this summer, as "iPhone Plus." "Everything else was a pretender. Now you have a real contender," Carter said, referring to the Evo.

For now Carter says his biggest challenge is having the patience to wait for more WiMAX markets to get deployed. "It takes time to build the network. We have to have patience." However, he added that there is now much more energy around what the company is doing in terms of 4G, and that's making the process much easier. --Sue