New iPhone 6S could let Sprint network shine

With carrier aggregation in Denver, Sprint is starting to double speeds for newest phones

LAS VEGAS -- Apple gave Sprint a little gift this week with the new iPhone 6S in the form of faster wireless speeds via a technology called carrier aggregation.

The only problem is that Sprint is just at the beginning of rolling out carrier aggregation capability nationwide, a process expected to take place over the next two years. Just this week, Sprint announced the technology's availability in Denver with starts in “select” parts of 80 other cities. (In a recent earnings call, Sprint divulged the technology is delivering up to 135Mbps speeds in Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and Detroit.)

Carrier aggregation technology allows a wireless company to send a data signal over two or more wireless channels at once, thus increasing speed and capacity. Both the wireless network and a smartphone must support the technology for it to work. The latest Apple smartphone does, although Sprint only has the technology in limited places.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure called attention to the new technology in the iPhone 6S before a live audience today at CTIA Super Mobility 2015. In Denver, Sprint was named by Root Metrics this week as the fastest network over its three largest competitors, Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile, owing primarily to the carrier aggregation capability.

"With new iPhone 6S, speeds will double or triple," Claure told the CTIA crowd. "The first place [that carrier aggregation] was deployed was Denver...and it will happen in market after market in the next two years."

The question is whether that pace will be fast enough to give Sprint the edge it needs to battle T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon, as well as any potential wireless newcomers.

"Sprint is finally rolling out carrier aggregation," Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said in an interview at CTIA. "Sprint has awesome assets and is utilizing them the least. As far as carrier aggregation, Sprint is rolling out in 80 markets, but at the moment only in high-traffic sites. Sprint needs to bring carrier aggregation to every site at a faster pace than they have in the past."

Despite that criticism, Entner also stressed that if Sprint could accelerate its carrier aggregation technology rollouts, it would win -- hands down -- the race for faster network speeds. And customers would likely flock to it as a result.

"If they quickly rolled out carrier aggregation nationwide, they would win the speed crown and nobody else could come close. Speed is everything," Entner said.

The reason Sprint could do so well, he said, is because of its massive wireless spectrum holdings, which amount to more than any other carrier on the globe. With carrier aggregation specifically, Sprint has enough spectrum to be able to run two channels that are each 20MHz in size side by side, something no other U.S. carrier has. Based on current spectrum holdings, rival carriers would only be able to match a 20MHz channel with a 5MHz channel, yielding less capacity and speed, Entner said.

Having two 20MHz channels working in tandem to deliver data over LTE (and eventually Voice over LTE) is like having two large straws to suck soda out of glass, which is far more effective than using one straw or even a large straw and a small one.

Faster network speeds are one vital component for improving Sprint's prospects, Claure noted. He also cited better customer service and pricing plans that include the first phone leasing plan in the industry. He argued that Apple had copied that move in its announcements on Wednesday.

Claure seems to understand what Sprint is up against. "We expect to be the number one or number two network in the next 24 months," he said, even as he acknowledged that Sprint is now in third place in speeds or overall network effectiveness.

"We have more spectrum than any other carrier on the planet," Claure said. "We feel extremely positive that we'll have one of the biggest turnarounds in telecom history."

A recent blog by John Saw, the CTO at Sprint, offers more specifics on Sprint's potential. Saw noted that Sprint has about 120MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum in 90 of the top 100 U.S. cities. He said Sprint began using the 2.5GHz spectrum to roll out two-channel carrier aggregation on "select sites" in 80 markets across the U.S.

"Cell sites with the capability are delivering double the capacity and speed in markets like Denver," Saw said. "And you ain't seen nothing yet. Our engineers are already working on three-channel carrier aggregation, which will deliver even high capacities and speeds, just when the competitor's networks are starting to congest."

In his remarks, Claure noted the importance of increased network capacity through carrier aggregation and others means. That's especially true for features like 4K video, which is coming to the iPhone 6S, he said. 4K video quadruples the resolution on a screen and increases the data on a network.

Sprint's future is brighter, Claure said, than when he arrived as CEO a year ago. "Sprint was perceived to be on a decline, with problems with the network and customer experience. Let's be honest, a lot of people had written off Sprint and other carriers were taking customers from Sprint. But we surprised people with recent results.

"We had 2 million customers [in 2014], but added 3.5 million more in the latest year; our stock was up and down, but has been up 55% this month alone," he said.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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