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Sprint promises gigabit LTE

Operator is finally making the most of its Clearwire spectrum, bringing superfast Spark service to major cities


Published: 31 October, 2013


Belatedly putting its full commitment behind the 2.5GHz spectrum it acquired with Clearwire, Sprint has unveiled plans for an ultra-fast LTE service, Spark.

The offering shows the hand of Softbank, now Sprint's majority owner, which has a 2.5GHz, TD-LTE network of its own in Japan and has been quicker than its new subsidiary to recognize the value of high frequency, unpaired spectrum - often undervalued in the US because of its poor range and indoor penetration.

But what it loses in those areas, 2.5GHz makes up for in capacity, and Sprint's new Spark service will start at a peak of 50Mbps to 60Mbps and will evolve towards 1Gbps, which would make it one of the world's first mobile services to qualify to be 'true 4G' under ITU definitions. The operator says its spectrum could deliver a theoretical peak of 2Gbps in future.

This is achieved by using more and more of the 120Mbps in unpaired 2.5GHz which Clearwire owns in many markets - by contrast, the other Sprint LTE networks use 10MHz and have a peak of about 37Mbps. Not all the 100MHz-plus is being harnessed - some is fragmented and some is still supporting the legacy WiMAX operations, but enough will be active to offer some superfast offerings.

Spark has initially been launched in five markets - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and two Florida cities, Miami and Tampa. The offering makes its debut with a select group of handsets, such as the G2 from LG and the One Max from HTC - two vendors which will be eager to ride on the profile generated by these announcements. The ubiquitous Samsung is there too, with the Galaxy S4 Mini.

Although the details of Spark, such as pricing, are sketchy so far, it shows Sprint grabbing the PR initiative at last, and it is the first tangible result of some important strategic decisions of recent years - to invest in the flexible Network Vision infrastructure, which supports multiple air interfaces and spectrum bands; to take full control of Clearwire and fully deploy its spectrum rather than sidelining the operator; and to switch off iDEN, while harnessing three bands simultaneously, despite the device complexities, for 4G.

Sprint plans to bring the Spark upgrade to 100 of the largest US cities over the next three years, clearly focusing its Clearwire spectrum on what it does best, delivering capacity in dense urban areas. It also aims to cover 200m POPs with regular LTE by the end of this year and 250m by the end of 2014. It now has 26,000 Network Vision base stations in action, up from 20,000 three months earlier.

The carrier will complete the modernization of its 1.9 GHz network by mid-2014, according to the company, while 800MHz deployment has begun on the spectrum freed up by the shutdown of Nextel's legacy iDEN services. Most of that low frequency roll-out will take place in 2014, while Sprint will have 5,000 2.5GHz TD-LTE sites working by the end of this year, in line with Clearwire's build-out plan before it was taken over.

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