Sprint talks up Spark small cells, 8T8R antennas, but some analysts remain unimpressed

Sprint (NYSE: S) yesterday hosted a media event to announce a number of new initiatives, including a longer trial period for its services, nationwide HD Voice, additional LTE markets and a new focus on fitness apps and services, along with the fitness-focused Samsung Galaxy S5 Sport. However, some in attendance remained notably unimpressed: "We do not believe any of the announcements are a game changer and continue to expect Sprint to struggle to take share," wrote Credit Suisse analysts Joseph A Mastrogiovanni and Michael Baresich in a note to investors following the event.

"HD Voice is now available across Sprint's network footprint. While the service should provide better voice quality, we do not expect it to set Sprint apart from its peers. T-Mobile already offers HD voice and AT&T and Verizon will offer it with their VoLTE service," the analysts wrote. "The new Samsung Galaxy S5 Sport, which Sprint has exclusively, appears to be a neat device with fitness integration from Under Armour, but we don't see it driving material share gains."

The analysts concluded that they believe Sprint will continue to struggle to add subscribers, and the carrier won't be able to offer true network differentiation "until 2016 at best, and by then we worry spectrum acquisition and technology advancement will allow the other carriers to at least keep pace."

At its media event, Sprint did offer some additional insights into its network buildout and upgrade plans. Sprint said it launched LTE in 28 new markets, bringing its LTE footprint to 471 cities covering more than 225 million people. Sprint expects to reach 250 million with 4G LTE coverage by mid-year. Sprint also said it expanded its Sprint Spark service--which combines LTE transmissions across Sprint's 2.5 GHz, 1900 MHz and 800 MHz bands for improved performance--to three new markets (St. Louis, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, N.C.). The carrier said Spark is designed to deliver average wireless speeds of 6-15 Mbps and peak wireless speeds of 50-60 Mbps, and that Spark will expand to 100 million people by the end of this year.

In conversations with GigaOM, Sprint offered some insights into its plans to deploy 8T8R (eight transmitters/eight receivers) antenna technology on its LTE network, which the carrier said should provide more consistent and reliable connections even on the edge of Sprint's network. According to GigaOM, Sprint's 8T8R vendors are Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent and Samsung and Sprint has deployed the antenna technology in Chicago on a trial basis, with an eye toward a commercial rollout later this year.

In separate comments to Light Reading, Sprint's network chief John Saw said the carrier has deployed a "small number" of single-mode LTE picocells, and is working with parent SoftBank to deploy "Sprint Spark small cells" within the next few months. However, he said those Spark small cells won't necessarily support all three Spark bands. Instead, he said they might be single-mode 2.5 GHz, single-mode 1900 MHz, or dual-mode 1900 MHz and 2.5GHz. He said tri-mode small cells are expensive, and Sprint's 800 MHz already penetrates indoor environments.

For more:
- see this GigaOM article
- see this Light Reading article

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