Sprint's Saw: Our network densification won't be 'a traditional slow and expensive build'

Sprint (NYSE: S) CTO John Saw said that Sprint's network densification, which will include thousands of new macro cell sites and tens of thousands of small cells, will not be "a traditional slow and expensive build."


Saw indicated that Sprint will be very specific in where it deploys new sites. "This will be a progressive build that improves the customer experience as each new site comes on air," Saw said in a company blog post, in which he touted Sprint's improved network performance as measured by network testing firm RootMetrics. "And you'll see us take a different approach -- this won't be a traditional slow and expensive build. We'll be extremely surgical and efficient, leveraging big data and network diagnostics to determine the optimal deployment of each small cell down to the street corner level."

During Sprint's earnings conference call earlier this month, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure made a similar point. "In the past, our engineers would design based on theoretical propagation models, but today, there are so many more tools available to enable precision execution," he said.

The slow pace of Sprint's original network modernization plan, and the service disruptions it caused, is seen as one of the reasons Sprint lost millions of customers in 2013 and 2014. Sprint, with the backing of its parent SoftBank, will certainly be looking to make the densification less disruptive and take less time.  

The RootMetrics report, which covered the first half of 2015, highlighted the progress Sprint has made but how far it still has to come. Sprint showed significant improvement in data reliability but in terms of network speed and data performance, Sprint is still in last place among the four Tier 1 carriers.

Sprint's network densification project, which the carrier has dubbed the "Next Generation Network," is intended to increase coverage and capacity across the network. 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.

In the blog post Saw noted that Sprint will continue to expand its 2.5 GHz LTE footprint. "As we continue to improve on our LTE coverage with techniques like carrier aggregation and beamforming, our customers in metro markets will soon see significantly improved data speeds and performance," he said.

Sprint has also started the deployment of two-carrier carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band in 80 markets, including parts of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and San Francisco. Claure has said Sprint will be adding more markets over time. Carrier aggregation, which is the most well-known and widely used technique of the LTE Advanced standard, bonds together noncontiguous bands of spectrum to create wider channels and produce faster speeds. Sprint executives have long said carrier aggregation is what will help set Sprint apart from its competitors.

Claure has said that, with carrier aggregation, Sprint expects capacity and speeds to double, and that, in markets like San Francisco, customers are seeing peak speeds of 125 Mbps to 135 Mbps. He also added that Sprint is one of the first carriers to roll out carrier aggregation with antenna beamforming, which he said "significantly improves users' experiences at the cell edge." Sprint currently has seven devices in its portfolio capable of accessing two-carrier carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band and will expand that portfolio of devices over time.

Saw did not say exactly how many small cells Sprint will add, but said the plan is "to initially deploy tens of thousands of small cells, with the potential to increase that deployment over time." He noted that small cells offer "increased capacity and more efficient throughput which enables customers to send and receive data at faster rates. And they will allow us to add capacity in targeted high-traffic areas, as well as extend better service in hard to reach locations and indoor sites."

Saw noted that Sprint and SoftBank are working closely together and building on the experience SoftBank had in Japan of using small cells in the 2.5 GHz band. "You'll see us continue to play hard and perhaps do things a bit differently," Saw said. "But more importantly, you'll see us win with a network that has the right team, the right assets, and the right plan to support our customers' insatiable appetite for mobile data."

For more:
- see this Sprint blog post

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