Sprint shows biggest gains in network performance in last half of 2014

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RootMetrics tests still give top marks to Verizon and AT&T, with Sprint, T-Mobile jockeying for third and fourth

Sprint showed the biggest network performance improvement of the nation's four largest wireless carriers for the last half of 2014, according to RootMetrics, a firm that measures mobile network performance.

Sprint had the most room for improvement given its first half of 2014 performance, but "Sprint made the biggest jump of any network from the first to the second half," RootMetrics said in a report released Tuesday. RootMetrics used actual smartphones to take a total of 5.7 million data and voice test samples while driving and walking throughout the nation.

While Sprint's improvement is noteworthy, the carrier still ranked third or fourth along with T-Mobile on most network performance measurements behind Verizon Wireless and AT&T, another indicator of the schism between the nation's top two carriers and others.

In overall national performance, Verizon finished first with a 93.9 score, followed by AT&T at 91.7, Sprint at 86.6 and T-Mobile at 84.

In network reliability and call performance, the carriers finished in the same order. For separate network speed and data performance tests, Sprint dropped to fourth behind T-Mobile.

Sprint's biggest accomplishment was in text performance measures nationally, where it finished second to AT&T, putting Verizon in third and T-Mobile in fourth.

Both Sprint and T-Mobile issued statements calling attention to their gains in the RootMetrics report. However, the news was viewed as much sweeter for Sprint than for T-Mobile, given Sprint's massive corporate and network overhaul in 2014, including the appointment of a new CEO, Marcelo Claure, and Sprint's adjustments to majority ownership by Japan's Softbank. Last week, Sprint reported quarterly earnings showing it added nearly 1 million network connections, an increase of 42% year-over-year, for a total of nearly 56 million connections. (Sprint used "connections" to reflect the number of devices on its network, which is a different measure than subscribers.)

Regarding network performance, Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter commented, "While this [RootMetrics] report is just one source of measurement, it does confirm our internal metrics that the network is getting better every day. We still have a lot of work to do, particularly to improve data performance and speed, but these results affirm we're moving in the right direction."

Also, in a Tuesday blog, Sprint's chief network officer John Saw noted that Sprint has undergone a massive upgrade of its cell tower sites that "took longer than anticipated" but has resulted in "tangible" improvements. He said there are now 270 million Americans within Sprint's LTE coverage areas.

Two industry analysts said the Sprint network performance improvements are noteworthy but aren't the only factor that will matter in Sprint's overall health.

"Sprint lost a good deal of credibility over the past few years as its networks suffered and customers grew disillusioned with its service, so Sprint is basically in rebuild mode," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Association. "Anything Sprint can do to improve its [network performance] scores is a good thing."

While aggressive price cuts at Sprint will help it counter similar moves by T-Mobile, it will still "be up to Sprint to prove they are worth staying with," Gold added. He said he remains "cautiously optimistic that Sprint can restructure itself to become a viable competitor, but it only has "a year or two to do so or the market will pass them by."

Sprint has vast wireless spectrum holdings that will continue to make it an attractive acquisition candidate. "They are not simply going away, but how long will Softbank be patient if things don't improve?" Gold asked.

Gartner analyst Bill Menezes said the number of complaints and concerns he has heard about Sprint have declined in the past year.

Still, Menezes pointed out that any exhaustive national or metro area assessment of network performance is not a true indicator of a carrier's overall value to customers.

"Most businesses and individual users are basing their decisions on a carrier based on personal experience, and they don't care about carrier performance nationally or in a market across the country," Menezes said. "They are basing their decisions on how well their current carrier is enabling them to connect calls and open Web pages locally and on what their friends and family are telling them the experience is with other carriers in the same market."

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