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Sprint may boost plan prices when LTE network gets stronger

CEO Dan Hesse says the wireless carrier has already sold 1 million LTE smartphones despite its limited network.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse speaks at a wireless conference earlier this year. CNET

Sprint Nextel has been rolling out its high-speed LTE network, but the faster network could come with a downside for customers -- higher prices.

Chief Executive Dan Hesse, speaking at an analyst conference today, said Sprint may consider raising prices once it has made more progress with its 4G LTE network upgrade. The company lags Verizon Wireless and AT&T in building out the high-speed network, something that could limit its attraction to customers.

"We have a competitive disadvantage in terms of LTE footprint," Hesse said. "You don't increase your price when you have a network footprint disadvantage. You want to wait and think of that until you get to that point."

Sprint, the distant third-place U.S. wireless carrier, has been in the process of upgrading its network through a plan it calls "Network Vision." LTE allows customers to surf the Web and download media more quickly, among other benefits. The high-speed technology is likely to see even higher demand from consumers once the iPhone 5, Apple's first phone to run on LTE, gets into consumers' hands just two days from now.

While rolling out LTE, Sprint is also attempting to narrow the gap with rivals by maintaining its unlimited plan and by offering the iPhone. It raised the cost of its unlimited plan by $10 a month to $80 early last year but has since kept unlimited data pricing steady while Verizon and AT&T have shifted to shared data plans.

Hesse today said that unlimited data plans will remain a point of differentiation for Sprint. He noted that Verizon will have an advantage selling the iPhone 5 because of its LTE network but said such a benefit will be temporary.

Sprint has already sold 1 million LTE-enabled smartphones despite its network's limited footprint, Hesse said.

He declined to provide any details about iPhone 5 sales so far or to compare sales to those at rivals. AT&T earlier this week said the iPhone 5 has sold faster than any previous Apple phone.

"There's nothing I'm going to announce," Hesse said. But "it's going to be a really strong selling device. ... I'm just very glad we have it."