Sprint deploys gigabit LTE in 225 cities

Ahead of its 5G launch in nine areas in 2019 and its proposed merger with T-Mobile, Sprint has deployed gigabit-speed LTE in 225 cities across the US.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Sprint has announced that its LTE-Advanced network is now available across the United States, with more than 225 cities now able to access gigabit speeds and the carrier calling its network upgrades the stepping stones to 5G.

Included in the gigabit-capable cities are New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington DC, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Indianapolis, and Phoenix.

Sprint said its 4G LTE upgrade program has involved deploying 4x4 Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), 256 Quadrature Amplitude Moderation (QAM), enhanced beam forming with Transmission Mode 9, two- and three-channel carrier aggregation, uplink carrier aggregation, 64 QAM, and Massive MIMO.

According to Sprint, it has also activated more small cells in the last six months than it has in the last two years, with more than 21,000 2.5GHz outdoor small cells now live, including 15,000 strand-mount small cells on cable infrastructure and 6,500 on-street mini macros.

"We have 21,000 small cells on air, including great progress we are making with Altice and Cox for strand mounts, so they will continue to fortify the in-footprint coverage," Sprint CTO John Saw said during the carrier's Q2 earnings call on Wednesday.

"As [for] outer footprint coverage, we are looking at adding new towers to expand our coverage into neighborhoods that have outgrown our legacy coverage. In the meantime, we are also benefiting from the roaming agreement we signed with T-Mobile that actually, they have a slightly bigger outer footprint coverage, and so we're able to leveraged that as well, as we are looking at building more new towers to expand our own footprint organically."

Read also: Sprint CTO at MWC: We have the best 5G spectrum

Sprint has now distributed more than 264,000 units of its Magic Box -- of which the carrier unveiled an updated version during Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) in Los Angeles last month -- across the US.

Ahead of its 5G launch in the initial nine 5G markets of Los Angeles, Washington DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York City, Phoenix, and Kansas City, Sprint said it is also activating more 5G-capable Massive MIMO 64T64R radios, which it said are providing a four-fold increase in speeds and a seven-fold increase in capacity.

"With regards to the 5G plans, we are very well on track," Saw added.

"The tool that we're going to use to build our 5G network is using Massive MIMO. And the 5G spectrum that we're going to be leveraging is our 2.5 gigahertz spectrum. So we have restarted building our Massive MIMO sites ... so 5G, for us, once we have these Massive MIMO sites built, will be a software and line-cut upgrade only, so no tower climbs needed.

"In a couple of months, we will add the 5G software. We will be able to enable both LTE and 5G simultaneously on the same sites."

Saw explained that Sprint is physically and logically separating the 128 antenna elements into two halves, with half to provide LTE and the other half 5G.

"You can get away with this for Sprint, because we have enough spectrum to actually power up both halves of the Massive MIMO antenna," he said.

"This is how we are able to use the same radio hardware to enable both LTE and 5G simultaneously using the same Massive MIMO antenna, so lots of antenna elements that allows us to run this in split mode to support both LTE and 5G."

Saw added that the "key driver" of Sprint's improved mobile data speeds has been deploying across more 2.5GHz spectrum, with the band now deployed across approximately 70 percent of its macro sites. Sprint said it remains on track to complete the majority of its tri-band upgrades by the end of FY19.

Sprint reported net income of $196 million for the second quarter of the fiscal year, up $244 million from last year's $48 million loss, with operating income of $778 million, up from $601 million this time last year.

Adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) were $3.3 billion, up from $2.7 billion a year prior, as the carrier added 109,000 net post-paid customers during the period.

"Sprint reached an important milestone this quarter by returning to year-over-year growth in wireless service revenue two quarters earlier than promised," Sprint CEO Michel Combes said.

"Our strategy of balancing growth and profitability while we increase network investments and add digital capabilities continues to drive solid financial results."

For the full financial year, Sprint increased its expectation for adjusted EBITDA from between $12 billion and $12.5 billion up to be between $12.4 billion and $12.7 billion.

T-Mobile, which Sprint is aiming to merge with next year -- which the union claims could cost between 28,000 and 30,000 jobs -- earlier this week announced adding 1.6 million net customers including 1.1 million post-paid during the most recent quarter. T-Mobile earnings were $795 million, or 93 cents a share, on revenue of $10.8 billion, up 8 percent from a year ago.

Last month, however, the Federal Communications Commission told Sprint and T-Mobile that it needs more time to review their planned merger, although T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told ZDNet that this is a common occurrence in transactions of such size and scale.

Sprint is also working with LG on a 5G smartphone for the first half of 2019, and with Ericsson on building a virtualised core Internet of Things (IoT) network and operating system.

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