Sprint Nextel is looking to get its 4G LTE rolled out sooner, rather than later.
Sprint plans to launch its 4G LTE service, part of its Network Vision upgrade plan, in 10 markets by the first half of the year. That includes major cities including Dallas (AT&T's headquarters), San Antonio, Houston, and Atlanta, CEO Dan Hesse said today during an investor conference. The event was Webcast.
The timing adds a little specificity to its 4G LTE plans. The company previously said it expects to launch the service by midsummer. Sprint, which has for years relied on Clearwire's older 4G WiMax network as its next-generation service, is now playing catch-up with Verizon Wireless and AT&T, which are well under way with their own LTE deployments.
Customers, however, may not be able to take advantage of that network. Sprint previously said that 4G LTE devices wouldn't come until the second half of the year.
The news comes as AT&T also announced that it has expanded its own LTE network to 11 additional markets, including major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Verizon Wireless, however, still holds a considerable lead on LTE coverage.
Beyond 4G LTE, Sprint's Network Vision plan, which uses new technology that allows the company to juggle multiple technologies at once, is supposed to reduce the operating costs, improve the signal strength, and reduce the number of dropped calls.
On spectrum, Hesse said the company has enough spectrum by itself to last through 2014. But with Clearwire's spectrum, the company can last until 2016, or longer if Clearwire gets additional funding to expand beyond its existing territory.
"We would like to work very closely with them to build a larger footprint," Hesse said, but added that a lot of it depends on issues such as funding.
Sprint and Clearwire have warmed up to each other considerably after Sprint bailed out Clearwire with a funding and resale agreement worth up to $1.6 billion. The deal includes an advanced payment for unlimited 4G data using Clearwire's WiMax network, which Hesse said does a lot for the stability in its own pricing.
Hesse said he considers Clearwire down the line to serve as the overflow destination for data traffic. Because Clearwire operates in a lot of larger, more heavily populated cities, it is ideal for helping out when data demands get too tough for Sprint to handle alone.
Sprint plans to finish building its own 4G LTE network by 2013. In the meantime, the company said it would continue to support WiMax devices through this year. Clearwire is working to switch over to its own version of LTE as well.
Hesse said that by 2014, he hopes to get Federal Communications Commission approval to use some of its current stock of spectrum for the LTE network, and is looking to increase capacity in the next two years.
Hesse also commented on its partnership with LightSquared, which has recently had problems getting FCC approval to use its own spectrum because of concerns that its network would cripple GPS devices, noting that Sprint has put the investment and work into its partnership with LightSquared on hold. Sprint and LightSquared have a network-sharing deal in which Sprint would host LightSquared's spectrum on its infrastructure in exchange for money and spectrum.
Sprint recently gave LightSquared a 30-day extension to get FCC approval before scrapping the deal.
"We hope they're successful with their interference issue," Hesse said, adding he feels protected because of an advance payment already made to Sprint by LightSquared.
Hesse warned that with the cost of carrying the iPhone and the network upgrade plans, the company will see a lot of margin pressure over the next few years. But he believes it will pay off in better customer loyalty, subscriber growth, and lower network costs down the line.
Lastly, Hesse couldn't hide his enthusiasm when asked about the failure by AT&T to complete its acquisition of T-Mobile USA (he loudly said "Yes!"), but said that though consolidation was still in the cards for the wireless industry. He added it would be difficult for AT&T or Verizon Wireless to make any deals, and reiterated his belief that the combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would have been bad for the industry and consumers.
"The big two have gotten too big," he said, referring to larger competitors AT&T and Verizon.
Updated at 1:38 p.m. PT: to include additional comments from the Sprint CEO.