Sprint taking a 'wait and see' approach to 5G

NASHVILLE -- A top Sprint executive said the carrier is taking a "wait and see" approach to 5G, noting that there are still technologies available to the carrier today to meet its users' rising demands for data.

"We're evaluating this" 5G trend, said Jay Bluhm, Sprint's VP of network planning. "We're looking at it."

However, Bluhm said "there's a lot in 4G and LTE Advanced still to be had," in terms of ensuring that Sprint has enough network capacity to address users' needs.

Indeed, those demands are increasing, Bluhm said. He explained that Sprint's network traffic has increased 85 percent year over year, and is on pace to triple by 2020. Unsurprisingly, much of that traffic is video: Bluhm said 50 percent of the carrier's network activity is due to video

To meet that demand, particularly in streaming video, Bluhm said Sprint is engaging in LTE Advanced "optimization" technologies like carrier aggregation and beamforming.

Bluhm made his comments during a keynote discussion here at the Competitive Carriers Association's Mobile Carriers Show, the spring gathering of executives from the nation's smaller and rural carriers. The CCA's membership includes Sprint and T-Mobile and smaller carriers -- essentially all carriers except the nation's top two providers, AT&T and Verizon.

Bluhm's comments aren't surprising given Sprint's current financial situation. The carrier recently announced it will raise roughly $2.2 billion by selling some of its equipment at its cell towers to a new entity, Network LeaseCo, which the company described as "several bankruptcy remote entities." Under the complex transaction, Network LeaseCo will lease the equipment back to Sprint, and the equipment will be used as collateral for Sprint to borrow $2.2 billion from "external investors," including SoftBank, Sprint said.

Sprint's latest financial action with Network LeaseCo coincides with a major cost-cutting initiative and is geared toward improving Sprint's financial footing as it works to regain momentum in a mobile market that is largely dominated by its rivals.

Bluhm's comments on Sprint's approach to 5G largely align with what Sprint CFO Tarek Robbiati said during a recent investor conference. "The most efficient spectrum for high-capacity networks is high-frequency spectrum, so the sort of spectrum we have, 2.5," Robbiati said in March. "But you can also read through the literature about what our competition is saying of their ambitions. They have very high-frequency spectrum, which is almost in microwave territory, and that's very telling. And there's a simple engineering law that governs this: It's that higher frequency spectrum is more efficient to handle very large capacity of traffic, and that's a world we're moving toward with 5G."

While Sprint evaluates 5G, the carrier's rivals are moving forward with 5G network tests. Verizon recently confirmed it plans to soon begin 5G testing at 28 GHz with Samsung in Euless, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Verizon has hinted at 10 Gbps speeds from its 5G tests, and has said it could commercialize the technology as early as next year. Similarly, T-Mobile has filed plans to conduct 5G tests at 28 GHz and 38 GHz. And AT&T is collaborating with Ericsson and Intel to test 5G network technology in the operator's Austin, Texas, network labs starting in the second quarter of this year, and it plans to conduct outdoor tests and trials of the technology this summer. 

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