It's not an overstatement to say that Sprint pulled off a significant coup earlier this year when it introduced America's first 4G smartphone to rave reviews. The HTC Evo 4G not only attracted new customers to a carrier that had long been losing them, but it also gave a much needed boost to a struggling brand.
Though the Evo 4G, and the newer Samsung Epic 4G, are sold across the country, Sprint's 4G WiMax network still does not cover some of the nation's largest cities. And for 4G handset owners paying an extra $10 per month for service they don't get, the coverage gaps can seem endless, inexplicable, and frustrating.
Why the wait?
So what is the holdup? Why does it take so long to get 4G and when will Sprint add new cities? Indeed, we've asked those questions for months, so we don't blame CNET readers for doing the same. Though acquiring the necessary spectrum plays a huge part in bringing 4G service to a new area, Sprint and its partner Clearwire also have to surmount a multitude of logistical and legal barriers before they can acquire the land, build the tower, install the equipment, and switch on the service. Depending on the community, that can take months or even years, and in the process, customers are left waiting.
Sprint 4G markets
As of August 20, 2010
Salt Lake City
4G cities by end of year
New York City
Future 4G cities
John Saw, chief technology office of Clearwire, uses the acronym "AZP" to describe the 4G expansion process. Before you even can install a 4G antenna, you must acquire the site (A), get zoning approval (Z), and secure the proper permits (P) from the local planning departments.
"[AZP] is the part of process that takes the most time," Saw said. "Each municipality can have slightly different zoning laws so we need to plan way ahead of time to get all of these things done."
Under the best circumstances Saw estimates that it can take less than a year to completely build out a market. But if the locality requires particularly complex regulations, or Clearwire needs to seek approval from overlapping governmental agencies, the process can go 18 months or more.
Before adding St. Louis, for example, Saw said that Clearwire had to work with 125 municipalities to secure the proper approvals. For the New York City market, however, it is negotiating with more than 350 municipalities, each with its own zoning requirements. And if the number of cities isn't enough, sometimes they can compete with each other.
Patrick Ryan, adjunct professor of telecommunications policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that some communities have tried to influence antenna placement to their advantage. Because tower leases are a revenue source, a municipality might insist they be installed on city-owned property.
In another scenario, City A might deny an application for a tower placed on its border with City B, but then approve the installation if it's moved solely within City A's boundaries. "Cities want to know where [the tower] covers and try and steer you a certain way," Ryan said. "They're trying to get into the engineering business and look at what the benefit is for them."
New or used?
Iyad Tarazi, Sprint's vice president of network deployment, said Sprint knew what to expect before starting WiMax deployment. "The process is well known and is the same process we used for 3G," he said. "We don't have any surprises."
Nonetheless, 4G presents unique challenges. Because WiMax is a new technology, Sprint and Clearwire can't use existing CDMA antennas. "With true 4G deployment, you must go to every cell site and turn up capacity with new equipment," Tarazi said. "Otherwise, you don't really have the capacity to do it."
In most markets, Sprint and Clearwire can save time by installing the equipment on existing towers, a process called collocation. Because the tower already exists, the applicants can skip straight to the permitting process.
Ryan says collocation has another advantage under an FCC regulation issued last November. Though Congress had previously said that tower applications must be decided upon in a "reasonable time," the FCC's "Shot Clock" order requires municipalities to rule on collocation applications within 90 days. For new tower applications local governments can take up to 150 days.
While Ryan cautioned that it's still too early to tell how the Shot Clock order has affected 4G deployment, Washington's increased role is significant. "The federal government has recognized that it will have to facilitate [4G] deployment," he said. "Otherwise, you can go into an application that can be endless...and it can be very expensive."
The FCC took a similar role in 2006 when it issued a shot clock for cable franchising. Under those regulations, applications would be approved automatically if local governments failed to act in the allotted time period. The wireless industry, represented by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, asked for a similar default mechanism in the November decision, but the FCC denied its request. Instead, the FCC ruled only that an applicant has 30 days to sue if no decision is made after the deadline.
Despite that loss, CTIA Vice President of Public Affairs John Walls said his organization strongly supports the measure. "So many applications were tied up in the zoning approval process for years or more," he said. "The shot clock gave our carriers certainty and a much more reliable time frame."
Once past the approval process, 4G installation can happen quickly thanks to the small footprint of the equipment. In most locations, all that's needed is a 4x3-foot box, a microwave dish at the top of the tower, and a fiber cable. "The small footprint gives us a lot of flexibly," Saw said. "We go in places where other carriers can't."
A tale of three cities
But in some markets, finding those places, and finding enough of them, is difficult. Buildings, terrain, and even the number of trees can interfere with efforts to cover an area completely. Tarazi and Saw both named San Francisco and New York City as particularly challenging markets, but Saw also added Seattle to the list.
"With Seattle, not only do you have to consider terrain, which includes the hills and valleys, but in areas with high foliage you have to space your cell sites to make sure you can get your signal through," he said. "And then you have to worry about large bodies of water."
Ryan agreed that trees are a sticking point, particularly in suburban communities where only small commercial areas are zoned for tower installation. Reaching beyond parkland and into commuting routes and homes can be difficult.
The urban density of New York City poses the opposite problem. Saw wouldn't say exactly how many cell sites Sprint and Clearwire would need to cover New York, but a fair guess would put the number in the thousands.
Currently, Sprint and Clearwire use a two-tier approach to cover large cities. "Macro" sites, which sit on top of buildings and broadcast to a large area, require approval not only from the city, but also a lease from the building owner. With the smaller "pico" sites, which are installed on utility poles for deeper signal reach inside buildings, the local utility department weighs in.
"With this tow-tier design, we're able to provide the coverage that we need," Saw said. "Before they give us permission, we need to meet the installation criteria for each party."
Multiple government agencies also come into play in San Francisco, and for that matter, the entire state of California. Depending on the tower's proposed location, tower applications may need approval from the California Coastal Commission, the California Department of Transportation, and even some homeowners associations.
While securing those multiple approvals certainly takes time, Tarazi said San Francisco's geography, rather than the NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality, poses the biggest problem to 4G expansion. "You can work around regulations where you have a lot of choice where to go, but when you have a place that's hilly, there are better spots than others to be able to see certain neighborhoods," he said. "You're confined to a very small geography."
Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs called out San Francisco's reputation for excessive red tape last month when he defended the iPhone 4's antenna. And as CNET News reporter Erica Ogg later found, Jobs wasn't off base when he said it can take up to three years to add a new cell phone tower in the city.
Ryan stopped short of calling San Francisco's regulations excessive--a recent proposal would place tighter controls over tower aesthetics--though he acknowledged the delicate balance between a public desire for better cell phone service and the need to address local concerns. "I don't think it's going about it the right way, but I think San Francisco is genuinely trying to satisfy constituent concerns as an honest broker," he said.
Indeed, aesthetics have become the last frontier of tower regulation. Under FCC rules, local governments can't cite radiofrequency (RF) concerns for denying tower applications if the proposed installation meets existing FCC safety standards. They are, however, given free rein to rule on aesthetics.
As a result, Ryan said that some municipalities are able to consider concerns about whether wireless signals are safe. "They're making decisions that regulate aesthetics, but they're still addressing the age-old question of 'Is the antenna safe?'" he said. "In many cases it is about aesthetics, but in other cases it's about [radiofrequency] with the flavor of aesthetics."
Carriers have reacted to aesthetic concerns in a number of ways. They may hide antennas in church steeples or at the tops of buildings or they may disguise towers to look like palm or pine trees. Alternatively, in cities with defined historical neighborhoods like Santa Fe, N.M., they must design antennas to blend in with accepted architectural styles.
"There are some municipalities that are genuinely interested in aesthetics," Ryan said. "And there are some communities that using it as a way to steer sites over to municipal property so they're the property owner."
Even when a market ready is ready, large public buildings like stadiums, transit stations, shopping malls, and airports can be separate engineering projects. Given the size, complexity of construction, and high concentration of people involved in such public structures, you can't just place a tower outside and hope for the best.
"4G will drive us to do a much higher percentage of buildings," Tarazi said." It's not just to send a text or an e-mail; you need high capacity data services. Your needs inside are more important."
Instead of relying on outside antennas, Sprint and Verizon install pico sites inside the building for better penetration. In other words, instead of coming from the outside in, they provide the signal from inside out. "For every [public building] you have to be able to reach the signal into places that are hidden from the outside world," Tarazi said. "Each building is an engineering project."
Here again, permission from multiple sources is necessary. In government buildings, for example, the carriers may have to meet security clearances, check compatibility with IT departments, and consult with the building's owner. In airports, they may have to meet FAA requirements, pay a few to the airport's operator, and share electrical conduit with the other tenants. "Airports are a special case," Saw said. "You have to deal with each approval body on an individual basis.
Where to start?
Sprint won't publish specific timetables for future cities, but Tarazi said the carrier considers a few factors when making coverage decisions. Besides acquiring the necessary spectrum, the carrier will take into account the size and density of the population, the geographic size of the city, the expense of adding the necessary equipment, and historical 3G usage patterns. If 3G use is high in a city, Sprint can infer that 4G use will be high as well.
Despite the many hurdles involved, Tarazi maintains that at the end of the day his company sees 4G as an investment that will lead to faster service, better coverage, and more customers. "You start with the bigger markets and work down. There's not a lot more to it than that," he said. "It's about where you have the customers and where you have the people to use it."