A recent independent study of LTE coverage within four U.S. cities showed Sprint's networks lagging far behind those of both Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
In comprehensive testing in Dallas, Fort Worth, Kansas City and Atlanta in mid-August and early September, research firm Advanced Frequency Engineering (AFE) found that Sprint's LTE service was "not present or not accessible in 75% to 90% of Sprint's advertised LTE coverage area in the cities tested at time of testing."
A Sprint spokeswoman called the results "surprising" and defended the carrier's initial LTE launches in a handful of cities over the summer. Sprint now offers LTE coverage in 19 cities, with about 100 more cities to be added to the list "in the coming months," she said.
"We're happy with the way launches are going," said the spokeswoman, Kelly Schlageter, today.
AFE found that both the Verizon and AT&T networks have 100% coverage in the areas tested.
The study involved nearly 1,000 miles of testing by drivers and from fixed locations in the networked cities.
Testers used both Samsung Galaxy S III LTE handsets and specialized spectrum analyzer equipment, AFE said.
During tests conducted in mid-August, AFE found that Sprint had just 10% coverage in Dallas, 20% in Fort Worth and 25% in the Kansas City area, which Sprint's headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas.
Early September tests found that Sprint had 15% coverage in Atlanta.
AFE looked at downloads speeds, performance with Web surfing and streaming video and LTE coverage, but only shared LTE availability data in a public summary of its findings.
The researcher also provided a map of Dallas showing that its tests found coverage far below what Sprint was showing on its Web site at the time.
Schlageter said the test results were a surprise to Sprint, as it carefully monitors its coverage as cell towers and cell sites on building rooftops come online with LTE.
"There's not a market where we don't know how many sites we have [on LTE] and how many are launched," she said. "That's why [the study is] surprising. It's a hard number."
Schlageter didn't attack the AFE results, but said it is possible that Sprint could have brought down a cell site serving an entire neighborhood in a large city for 24 hours while another new LTE cell site is integrated into the entire city's cluster of overall coverage. That could have caused at least some of the gaps AFE found, she said.
Sprint's philosophy with building LTE "is to get information on LTE out there as fast as possible," Schlageter said. While the company has announced its LTE launches in press releases, it hasn't yet publicized it via traditional advertising, she added.
When asked how an LTE map on Sprint's Web site could show an entire area is online but only a portion was activated as AFE found, Schlageter urged individual customers and potential customers to input an actual address instead of an entire city to see what their coverage will be.
Currently, for example, Sprint shows all of Dallas within LTE coverage at www.sprint.com/coverage.
Schlageter explained that Sprint's maps show on-street coverage based on the cell sites that are on-air, and that the information that is updated weekly.
Sites that augment coverage after a launch and are incremental will not be reflected on the map, but will improve a customer's performance, she said.
Asked how Sprint determines when to declare a city "launched" for LTE, she said that it uses an approach that is standard in the industry: "You launch when you have a bunch of [cell] sites ready. Our build has been pretty aggressive."
She said Sprint will hold off calling a city launched when a large majority of the cell sites there are activated, but really densely populated downtown area is not online. At the same time, Sprint may call a sparsely congested area activated when only a minority of the cell sites are activated, she explained.