Why Sprint is taking its sweet time with 4G LTE

The partial rollout of LTE in New York is emblematic of the issues Sprint has had with its deployment. CNET gets behind the delay.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
9 min read
Sprint network executive Iyad Tarazi on the roof of a Manhattan hotel next to a Sprint cellular site. Roger Cheng/CNET

As the wireless carriers shift into high gear with their speedy 4G LTE networks, Sprint has seemingly been stuck in the slow lane.

The company has showed some progress in the critical market of New York. But even there it's not a complete victory, with only two of the five boroughs -- Brooklyn and Bronx -- officially lit up with 4G LTE.

The partial deployment of New York is illustrative of the rocky road that Sprint has been on as it upgrades its wireless network -- a frustrating reality for both the company and its millions of customers.

Sprint's problems are legion: it has faced four-straight quarters of subscriber losses thanks to its now defunct Nextel network; the prospect of a resurgent T-Mobile looking to shake up the market; and two larger rivals in Verizon Wireless and AT&T looking to further hammer the company. The slow deployment of its LTE network makes Sprint even less competitive at a time when the carriers are scrambling to grab a shrinking base of customers.

"We all would like this to go faster," said Iyad Tarazi, head of network development and integration for Sprint. "If there was a silver bullet, we would have found one."

Nearly two years ago, Sprint promised an aggressive rollout of its network upgrade plan that would have lit up the major markets with 4G LTE. Fast-forward to today, and many of the major cities remain stuck on the slower 3G. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and even T-Mobile have wireless networks that surpass Sprint in reach and speed.

Sprint, of course, has had to deal with Japanese carrier Softbank, which now controls the Kansas-based company, as well with the acquisition of 4G provider Clearwire -- two deals that threatened to break out into a full-blown soap opera when satellite TV provider Dish Network tried to step in. The company has been delayed by the lack of fiber infrastructure supporting its cell sites, spectrum that it couldn't touch until recently, local bureaucratic hang-ups, as well as its decision to upgrade both its 3G and 4G service networks.

Despite Sprint's many problems, there remains hope. Spectrum from the former Nextel network and Clearwire should accelerate its 4G deployment, its unlimited data plan continues to be a draw, and the next iteration of LTE technology offers a chance for Sprint to be more competitive with its rivals.

"We understand that it's a disruption, and we want to finish this as soon as possible," Tarazi said. "We understand that more than people give us credit for."

A Sprint radio hanging off a hotel in Manhattan. This area has an active 4G LTE signal, even if Manhattan hasn't officially launched. Roger Cheng/CNET

Network breadth and speed are increasingly vital weapons as the carriers clobber each other, with many resorting to picking subscribers away from rivals for growth. The term LTE, in particular, holds tremendous cachet thanks to the truckloads of marketing dollars spent by the carriers to link those three letters to the concept of "blazing-fast speeds."

As a result, Sprint has been at a disadvantage because its LTE network, which covers 110 markets, but not many major cities such as New York and San Francisco, falls far behind larger rivals Verizon and AT&T. They each have hundreds of markets covered. Earlier this month, T-Mobile lit up 116 markets with LTE after six months of work, calling into question why Sprint has taken four times as long to accomplish slightly less.

Sprint's struggles have only provided ammunition to T-Mobile CEO John Legere, a relatively new personality on the wireless scene who's eager to take shots at his larger rivals.

"You mean when Sprint announced [LTE], and then they announced that they were behind, and then they announced the two markets they would announce later?" Legere said in a mock exercise of industry speak that had the audience in stitches at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

So, what's the problem?
Breanne Speer was holding up the checkout line again.

The 33-year-old graphic designer last month had been frantically attempting to pull up a coupon on the Chrome browser of her Samsung Galaxy S3 to use at a register at the World Market in the northern part of San Antonio. The only problem: her Sprint connection wasn't cooperating, and her coupon wouldn't load.

Flustered by the growing line behind her, Speer she gives up on using the coupon, negating the reason she came to that store in the first place.

"Yes, I could plan ahead, but isn't not having to do that the point of having this super-great LTE service?" she asked.

Watch this: Sprint dishes on its 4G roll out and finally coming to New York

Speer's dilemma underscores the continued challenges that the company faces even in markets where the company has upgraded its network. One of the primary issues has been the lack of spectrum, or the radio airwaves necessary to ferry bits of data from the phone back to the network.

Sprint has a thin patch of spectrum that it is currently using for LTE. While LTE is a faster wireless technology, a lot of spectrum is necessary to ensure a speedy connection.

Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said that at Sprint's current spectrum meant an LTE connection that was slower than the competitor's HSPA+ networks, largely because it lacked the bandwidth to carry the traffic.

Tarazi said the lack of robust spectrum hasn't slowed down its deployment, and that the company was turning on every site it could.

Sprint's spectrum crunch is expected to ease quickly. The company recently shut down its Nextel business, and plans to repurpose the spectrum from that network for its 4G LTE business. It also plans to tap recently acquired Clearwire's spectrum for additional capacity.

Wanted: More fiber
Another key problem has been the lack of backhaul, or the connection between the cellular tower and the central network. That link is another crucial part to ensuring the speedy delivery of data. Fiber-optic lines have been the preferred ground connection for next-generation networks.

Getting fiber through the streets and up buildings and towers has been a difficult task for Sprint.

A fiber-optic infrastructure has been the key to why T-Mobile has been able to move so quickly. While it only began hanging up its LTE radio in the last few months, the company spent years ensuring its infrastructure was ready to handle the next-generation wireless technology. Even before AT&T had made an offer for T-Mobile two years ago, the company had quietly putting its infrastructure pieces together.

Sprint, by comparison, previously employed an older 4G technology called WiMax, which didn't employ as much fiber-optic lines. As such, the company started late with its own backhaul installation.

A microwave used to shoot data back to the central network. Clearwire used microwave technology instead of fiber optics because it was available at the time. Roger Cheng/CNET

There are numerous other complications that vary by region. In New York, Sprint has to verify that every cell site -- including those from rival carriers -- are operational before it can add LTE. Sprint executives last year blamed the nesting habits of ospreys on cell towers in Florida as another reason for the delay -- the company had to wait for the birds to leave when the season turned. Additional delays are caused by tracking down distracted landlords to get approval to work on a roof, molding antennas into church steeples or trees for "stealth" cell sites.

"We know there are always problems, and we plan for it," said Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks for Sprint.

Sprint's decision to upgrade both its 3G and 4G networks under its Network Vision plan also prolonged the process. Unlike the data-centric 4G networks, the upgraded voice-centric 3G needed to undergo 911 testing.

"We are replacing virtually all elements of the network in what is a compressed timeline," Azzi said.

The 4G leader no more
Sprint's position marks a dramatic reversal from several years ago, when the company was beating its chest as the leader in 4G wireless services with a wireless network run by Clearwire.

When Sprint opted to break away from WiMax and switch to smartphones that would only run on its own LTE network, it was optimistic that its network upgrade plan would speed the transition to a new 4G technology. It even announced an impressive slate of cities that would eventually get the service. In essence, the company gambled that it could transition networks fast enough that few customers would miss a beat.

Well, Led Zeppelin's entire catalog of songs has gone by and most Sprint customers are still without LTE and stuck on the slower 3G network.

"I had a pretty wicked commute, and I was frustrated by the fact that I had a phone capable of 4G but couldn't access it," said Matthew Passy, a 32-year-old radio producer based in Ewing, N.J., who owns an iPhone 5 on Sprint.

Sprint likely wouldn't have taken so much criticism if it hadn't announced the markets that it had planned to be in. But Azzi said it was better to be transparent and to inform customers of upcoming markets.

But when Dason Kong, a 28-year-old living in Manhattan, signed up for Sprint to get access to an unlimited data plan, he didn't realize the LTE coverage was so sparse.

"When I switched over to Sprint three months ago, I thought there would be 4G everywhere," Kong said. "This is definitely not the case. If I had known, I probably would have stuck with T-Mobile."

Azzi acknowledged that Sprint was slower than the competition but argued the service was still a positive experience for customers when including other factors like customer service and the retail experience.

"It's plenty fast enough to meet the needs of our customers," he said.

The Network Vision promise
Between its Sprint 3G service, decommissioned Nextel network, and Clearwire assets, the company has a disparate portfolio of spectrum juggle. The company's Network Vision upgrade plan allows the carrier to use multiple spectrums under one network and may ultimately make it more competitive.

Sprint is already racing to prepare the Clearwire network for LTE use. Tarazi said that 5,000 Clearwire sites would be lit up for Sprint LTE this year, with 500 in New York alone.

Nextel's lower frequency spectrum allows for improved coverage within buildings, while Clearwire's high-frequency spectrum adds capacity in big cities.

That will eventually be a relief to Sprint customers such as Adrienne Martinez, a 17-year-old student based in Santa Ana, Calif. She complains that her iPhone 4 immediately drops to roaming whenever she walks in to her local Michaels arts and crafts store.

"I'm six feet away from the door, and my phone is literally roaming," she said.

To further bolster the network, Sprint plans on deploying small cells in a trial next year, Tarazi said.

The carriers' not-so-secret weapon to improve cell service

Another technology, called carrier aggregation, weds two bands of spectrum to double the potential network speed. By combining two bands of Clearwire's spectrum, Sprint customers could eventually see peak speeds of 100 megabits per second, and average speeds ranging between 20 and 50 megabits per second, according to Tarazi.

Moving beyond unlimited
Sprint has battled the LTE deluge with its signature feature: the unlimited data plan. Indeed, it appears to be the company's sole weapon right now.

When the rest of the national carriers launched plans that allow customers to upgrade their smartphones earlier, Sprint instead doubled-down on unlimited by offering a life-time guarantee.

For now, unlimited still has its appeal.

Sprint's Samsung Galaxy S4 is compatible with LTE, but in many areas it's still stuck on 3G. CNET

"For the value of unlimited data Sprint is still one of the better deals on the market," said Carolyn Jacoby, a 26-year-old paralegal from Nashville, Tenn., who said she was planning on sticking with Sprint.

It won't be long, however, before customers realize their unlimited plans don't mean as much if their phones are stuck with a slow connection. At that point, it needs to show that it's more than just a one-trick pony.

"Unlimited is only compelling if you can deliver the speeds that enables the apps that use data," said Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research.

Sprint is expected to post second-quarter results on July 30, and analysts expect the company to lose more than 2 million customers in the period, driven largely by the shuttering of the Nextel network.

It would cap off four straight quarters of subscriber losses, largely driven by Nextel. With the network shutdown, Sprint hopes things will improve in the second half. But if it doesn't pick up the pace of improvements, those losses could continue.

"I think my current service contract might be my last with Sprint, as I'm growing more and more tired of being told that everything's working fine when it so obviously isn't," Speer said.

Corrected at 7:19 a.m. ET: to note that spectrum from Nextel, not Clearwire, is better for in-building penetration, while clarifying that Clearwire spectrum is handy for capacity.