Sprint to cover 100M POPs with 2.5 GHz LTE by end of 2014

Sprint (NYSE:S) posted its first quarterly net profit since 2007 in the third quarter under new ownership of Japanese parent SoftBank. However, the carrier still lost subscribers as the hangover from its shutdown of the Nextel network at the end of the second quarter continued to hurt its results.

sprint third quarter 2013 charts

Click here for key slides from Sprint's third quarter earnings presentation.

SoftBank, which took control of Sprint in July, now owns around 80 percent of the company, and has pledged to turn it into a stronger competitor against its larger rivals, mainly by taking advantage of the 2.5 GHz spectrum Sprint acquired along with partner Clearwire in July. Sprint is expected to demonstrate the speed and capabilities of those airwaves at a small media event later today at its innovation center in Silicon Valley. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said on the company's earnings conference call that the company would demonstrate "groundbreaking advancements" in network and device technology.

Clearwire, the previous owner of Sprint's 2.5 GHz radio waves, said last year that an LTE Advanced network running on 2.5 GHz could support theoretical peak speeds of up to 168 Mbps by 2014.

As for the company's financials, Sprint reported a net profit of $383 million, compared with a year-ago loss of $767 million.

Here is a breakdown of Sprint's key quarterly metrics:

Network Vision/LTE: Sprint said it currently has more than 26,000 Network Vision multi-mode base station sites on air, up from the 20,000 it reported at the end of the second quarter. Additionally, the carrier said it has started realizing "significant cost savings" from the shutdown of the Nextel platform, including tower rent, backhaul and utilities. As part of Network Vision, Sprint has launched LTE in 230 total markets across the country and expects to cover 200 million POPs with LTE on its 1.9 GHz spectrum by the end of 2013.

On the company's quarterly conference call, Hesse, along with Steve Elfman, president of network operations at Sprint, gave more details on the company's LTE plans. Sprint will complete the modernization of its 1.9 GHz network by mid-2014, Elfman said. The company has also started deploying LTE on its 800 MHz spectrum, which was freed up from the Nextel shutdown. That deployment will continue into 2014.

As for its 2.5 GHz spectrum, Sprint plans to have 5,000 2.5 GHz TD-LTE sites on air by the end of 2013, a goal in line with Clearwire's previous buildout plans. Starting next year Sprint will begin deploying 2.5 GHz spectrum on a much wider basis, starting first in dense urban markets where capacity needs are greatest, Elfman said. However, the goal is to take 2.5 GHz nationwide. "We want to be very aggressive in our deployment across the country," Elfman said. He added later that "the goal is to build 2.5 and use that 120 MHz across the nation."

Hesse said that Sprint plans to have 100 million POPs covered with 2.5 GHz LTE service by the end of 2014. Hesse said the LTE deployment would roll out in stages, first on 1.9 GHz, then 800 MHz and then 2.5 GHz airwaves. He said it would take time for the 2.5 GHz coverage to catch up to its 1.9 GHz coverage.

The 2.5 GHz spectrum is expected to give Sprint a significant speed and capacity boost, and going forward all of Sprint's postpaid smartphones will support LTE on all three bands. Elfman said that on Sprint's 1.9 GHz spectrum, average LTE downlink speeds are 6-8 Mbps. On unloaded 2.5 GHz spectrum, Sprint is seeing speeds of 50-60 Mbps, he said.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) now covers 301 million POPs with LTE and has started deploying LTE on its AWS spectrum to augment capacity. By the end of the year, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) plans to cover 270 million POPs with LTE and then 300 million by mid-2014. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) now covers 202 million POPs with LTE.

"We continue to believe Sprint can take significant share once they have deployed their 2.5GHz spectrum giving them a speed and capacity advantage; however, it could take longer than expected," New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin wrote in a research note.

iPhones and smartphones: Sprint activated 1.4 million Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones in the quarter, the same as in the second quarter of 2013 and down slightly from 1.5 million in the year-ago period. Sprint sold 5 million smartphones in the quarter, which represented 92 percent of Sprint platform postpaid handset sales, the proportion highest ever.

Subscribers: Sprint reported a total loss of 313,000 wireless customers in the quarter, compared to a loss of 423,000 in the year-ago period. The losses included a troubling loss of 360,000 Sprint postpaid customers, which is higher than Sprint said it wanted. The carrier gained 84,000 Sprint prepaid customers and 181,000 wholesale customers. 

Hesse said that Sprint is experiencing elevated Sprint platform churn because of its Network Vision network modernization project. He said the effort has affected the company's CDMA call quality and coverage, a situation he expects to continue through next year.

The carrier also said that its iDEN network shutdown continues to affect its results as large enterprise customers that had both CDMA and iDEN move to other carriers.

"Postpaid losses were worse than we expected and well worse than consensus," Chaplin wrote.  "We believe Sprint will continue to face sub losses over the next three quarters at least." 

Churn: Sprint's total retail postpaid churn was 2.09 percent in the quarter, flat from the year-ago period. Sprint's total retail prepaid churn was 3.78 percent, up from 3.37 percent from the year-ago quarter. Sprint platform postpaid churn was 1.99 percent, up from 1.88 percent in the year-ago quarter.

ARPU: Sprint reported best-ever Sprint platform postpaid ARPU of $64.28 in the quarter, up from $63.21 in the year-ago period. Sprint platform prepaid ARPU was $25.33, down from $26.19 in the year-ago quarter.

Financials: Sprint's net operating revenue fell 2 percent to $8.68 billion. The company reported best-ever Sprint platform service revenue of $5.83 billion, up from $5.62 billion in the year-ago period. Wireless service revenue clocked in at $7.3 billion and grew year-over-year for the 13th consecutive quarter. Sprint reported adjusted EBITDA of $1.34 billion, up 5 percent year-over-year.

For more:
- see this release
- see this CNET article
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Kansas City Star article

Special Report: Wireless in the third quarter of 2013

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