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Sprint bulks up network for higher iPhone speeds

The carrier says it has rolled out "network enhancements" to improve connection speeds, but some customers still complain of slow service.

The first eager iPhone buyers outside of Sprint's flagship store in Manhattan on 23rd Street during the launch last month.
CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Sprint Nextel believes it has a fix for the connection issues facing some of its iPhones.

The carrier said it has spent the past few weeks rolling out "network enhancements" designed to improve data speeds, CNET has learned. Sprint was able to determine where the upgrades were needed through a combination of its own checks and feedback from customers.

"Initial customer response to the improvements has been very positive," Fared Adib, vice president of product development for Sprint, said in a statement to CNET. "Sprint continues to monitor device and network performance to ensure that customers get the performance they expect from our products."

The initial complaints of the slow data service put a slight damper on the excitement over Sprint finally getting the iPhone. The device is expected to play a critical role in Sprint's turnaround, so the company is justifiably sensitive about any perceived hiccups with the phone or service. The company proudly touted the early strong sales during the launch of the iPhone 4S in October, and CEO Dan Hesse has said he expects to sell more than 1 million iPhones in the fourth quarter.

Not everyone, however, is satisfied. Some Sprint customers complained that they continue to see inconsistent and, at times, dramatically slow service.

"I live in downtown Chicago and experience this constantly ever since I purchased the 4S," said Gabriel Mayhugh, a musician who works for a nonprofit organization in Chicago.

Mayhugh said he doesn't get much more than 500kbps, with evening speeds dropping down to 200kbps

"I become so frustrated when my friends on Verizon opened Web pages in less than a quarter of the amount of time it takes me," he said. "Downloading apps--forget it."

Other Sprint iPhone customers complained of wildly inconsistent service, with one noting his iPhone's connection fell to as low as 70 kbps, complicating his efforts to use Siri or download applications.

The speed issue continues to dominate the discussion on Sprint's customer service board, with the topic garnering more than 376,000 views and more than 1,700 responses.

To be sure, the problem isn't universal. CNET conducted a test of data speeds in select locations in Manhattan and found Sprint had generally performed better than Verizon Wireless' version. The test found no speed issues with the Sprint iPhone 4S.

Other longtime Sprint customers, meanwhile, may have been used to the higher speeds of which 4G phones like the Evo 3D are capable. Those devices are able to tap into a different, faster network run by Clearwire, while the iPhone 4S can only connect to Sprint's slower 3G network.

Regardless, Adib said consumer satisfaction for the iPhone is "very high," while customer care calls and the return rates have been "extremely low."

Sprint has employed its unlimited data plan as an extra selling point to customers deciding between it, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T, all of which sell the iPhone 4S. But customers have complained that the network is too slow to be useful.

Sprint previously told CNET that it was taking the speed issue seriously, but said it was difficult to replicate the problem that customers were having. The company declined to provide further details on the issue, or spell out what improvements were made.

Some of the customers remain pessimistic that these improvements will reach them.

"Now we are stuck with something that is not living up to their promise and is most likely not going to be fixed," Mayhugh said.