Sprint unveils 'LTE Plus' network brand to highlight carrier aggregation, beamforming in 77 major markets

Sprint (NYSE: S) is rebranding part of its LTE network and said that it has now deployed carrier aggregation and beamforming technology in 77 "major" markets across the country, in what it calls an "LTE Plus" deployment. The carrier will continue using LTE Advanced techniques to make its network faster and more robust, according to Sprint CTO John Saw.  

In a blog post, Saw laid out the progress Sprint is making and said in the 77 markets Sprint has deployed its LTE Plus network, it is using "some of the world's most advanced technologies in wireless such as carrier aggregation and antenna beamforming." The company has been densifying its network and is working to deploy its 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz spectrum for LTE across nearly all of its cell sites. As part of its "Next Generation Network" densification plans, Sprint has pledged to add thousands of new macro cell sites and tens of thousands of small cells to its network, but has not said exactly how many or when it will finish that work. Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has said most of the work so far has been on deploying small cells.

Sprint's LTE network covers 280 million POPs overall, fewer than the 302 million covered byT-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), the 308 million covered by Verizon Wireless and the 310 million AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) says are covered with LTE service on its network.

Saw said the technologies are delivering "faster service with double the network capacity and speed, and peak speeds in excess of 100 Mbps on capable devices." He also said Sprint is delivering stronger and more reliable service with "smart antenna technology that extends the cell signal further at 2.5GHz." Additionally, the technologies are enabling "more reliable service utilizing three bands of spectrum -- 1.9 GHz for broad coverage, 800 MHz for better indoor service, and 2.5 GHz for even faster data speeds."

Sprint has previously disclosed it had deployed two-carrier carrier aggregation technology in around 80 markets across the country and has mentioned using beamforming technology in the past. Carrier aggregation lets operators bond multiple noncontiguous spectrum channels together to build wider channels for faster speeds. Saw noted that beamforming is a signal processing technique that directs signals from multiple antennas towards where customers are located.

"Our 2.5 GHz LTE system with 8 Transmit 8 Receive (8T8R) radios is the sweet spot for enabling smart antenna beamforming," he said. "Simply stated, while our competitors are sending LTE data meant for a specific customer to everyone in a sector, we are able to transmit more directive beams to exactly where our customers are located."

Almost all of Sprint's 2.5 GHz cell sites nationwide use 8T8R radios, but Sprint is using carrier aggregation and antenna beamforming on select high-traffic 2.5 GHz sites in the 77 LTE Plus markets, according to Sprint spokeswoman Adrienne Norton.

The combination of carrier aggregation and beamforming is delivering more throughput to customers, especially at the cell edges and indoors, Saw said. According to Sprint, the areas it has deployed carrier aggregation and beamforming include many markets across the country. Some of the major ones include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Long Island, metro Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, northern Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

"Our new LTE Plus network using LTE Advanced technology is a significant differentiator for Sprint and our customers," Saw said. "It's also the foundation on which we will roll out more LTE Advanced capabilities such as 3/4/5-channel carrier aggregation, higher order MIMO and more advanced beamforming, seamless Wi-Fi integration and more."

Sprint will also continue to expand its LTE Plus device portfolio, which today holds 13 devices, including the iPhone 6s, HTC One A9 and the Samsung Galaxy S6.

LTE Plus will be used as a brand name in markets where Sprint has all three of its spectrum bands available and where it is using LTE Advanced technology such as carrier aggregation and antenna beamforming. Sprint is retiring the "Sprint Spark" brand, Norton told FierceWireless.

"As you know, Sprint Spark when it launched was the name of our triband network that included the newly acquired 2.5 GHz spectrum at that time," Norton said. Indeed, Sprint unveiled the Spark moniker in October 2013 shortly after it had completed its acquisition of Clearwire and its trove of 2.5 GHz spectrum. Sprint controls an average of 120 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in 90 of the top 100 U.S. markets.  

"Sprint is now a much different company with a significantly faster, stronger, more reliable network than when Sprint Spark originally made its debut, and we're celebrating this with the new Sprint LTE Plus brand," Norton said.

Saw said Sprint closely follows Nielsen Mobile Performance data, "which looks at how real consumers are using their wireless devices. NMP is crowd-sourced data that measures network performance under actual user demand, whereas other data sources measure a network's performance capability via stress testing like speed tests."

Every week, Saw said, Nielsen analyzes network performance data from tens of thousands of consumer panelists using Android devices recruited in 44 of the largest U.S. markets. Nielsen then uses crowd-sourced data to measure consumers' use of common applications such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat and others. Based on Nielsen's crowd-sourced data, Sprint's application download speeds for all file sizes have now surpassed Verizonand AT&T Mobility, Saw said, "with significant gains made starting in July when our deployment of two-channel 2.5 GHz carrier aggregation began taking hold."

Left unmentioned was T-Mobile, which claimed in its third-quarter earnings report that it had the fastest nationwide LTE network in the U.S. in the third quarter "based on download speeds from millions of user-generated tests." T-Mobile said it was the seventh consecutive quarter that T-Mobile has led the industry in average download speeds. "In the third quarter of 2015, T-Mobile's average 4G LTE download speed was 19.6 Mbps compared to Verizon at 18.9 Mbps, AT&T at 16.5 Mbps, and Sprint at 11.6 Mbps."

For more:
- see this Sprint blog post

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