Devices, 4G helping Sprint CEO lead comeback?

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse is optimistic about new devices and the company's 4G network. The real value of a cell phone company is the speed, reliability, and footprint of its network.

You might recognize Sprint CEO Dan Hesse from those black-and-white commercials. When I met with him last week at a hotel bar in Oakland, Calif., two women at the next table certainly did. They treated him like a celebrity.

I wouldn't go that far, but he does appear to have a good handle on the mobile industry and what Sprint--the No. 3 cell phone service provider behind AT&T and Verizon--needs to do. And he knows more than a little something about phone companies, having spent 23 years at AT&T, including a stint as CEO of AT&T Wireless Services.

It's too early to know for sure, but it seems as if Hesse could be Sprint's comeback kid.

Dan Hesse
Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, as seen in the company's much-played black-and-white commercial. Sprint

I started the conversation on a high note by asking him about the recently announced Palm Pre smartphone, which will be available exclusively from Sprint when it's released later this year. Not surprisingly, Hesse was "extremely enthused" about the phone, which won CNET's "Best of CES 2009" award and high initial praise from me and many other journalists.

While devices might attract customers, the real value of a cell phone company is the speed, reliability, and footprint of its network. As a Sprint customer, I can testify that it's pretty good. No cellular network is perfect, and reception always varies by location. But with my own Sprint phone and others I've tested, I've had relatively few dropped calls on Sprint, compared with Verizon and AT&T in the San Francisco Bay Area and on my frequent business trips, mostly to major U.S. cities.

Like Verizon's, most of Sprint's phones don't work overseas. But Sprint does offer a few "world" phones--including the BlackBerry 8830, which I tested--that have a GSM chip for global coverage. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM technology in the States, which means that most of their handsets will work overseas, albeit at incredibly high roaming rates, unless you unlock them and buy a GSM SIM card in the country you're visiting.

4G Network uses WiMax
Hesse spent a big part of our interview talking about Sprint's 4G network, which is currently deployed in Baltimore and will soon launch in Portland, Ore. A national roll-out is scheduled over the next couple of years. The service uses WiMax technology, which is a high-speed broadband that can handle data with average speeds from 2 to 4 megabits per second.

I haven't been able to test the 4G service, but the Sprint 3G card I tried in my notebook worked well in most locations, though at speeds averaging about 800 kilobits per second.

AT&T and Verizon will roll out their 4G networks using a different technology, called LTE (long-term evolution). But so far, Sprint is ahead in the race to 4G.

What I find most interesting is not broadband in PCs, but broadband embedded in other devices. Hesse envisions embedded 4G broadband in lots of devices, including video and still cameras.

Amazon's Kindle already has an embedded Sprint 3G broadband chip so you can order books from anywhere in the United States without having to connect the Kindle to a PC or a Mac. The Kindle is a one-way street--you use it to download books--but eventually there will be plenty of devices with high-speed two-way communications.

Hesse envisions using a high-end camera to take a picture or a video in Paris and narrating it in real time, broadcasting live via the network. Of course, you can already do that with cameras that are built in to phones, but he's talking about phones embedded into cameras.

While he wouldn't give me any specifics about unannounced products, he said there are some great new devices in the pipeline. In 2009 and 2010, we can expect much higher-resolution screens, 3D graphics, higher-resolution cameras in traditional phones and, of course, 4G WiMax.

Based on our interview and what I'm seeing in the marketplace, we can also expect plenty of new relatively low-cost handsets with either virtual or physical QWERTY keyboard so that Sprint and its competitors can sell their data services.