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Sprint planning large network expansion adding 9,000 new LTE sites nationwide

S4GRU

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by Robert Herron

Sprint 4G Rollout Updates

Tuesday, February 24, 2015 - 2:45 PM MST

 

Sprint is embarking on a significant expansion of its network. The first major addition of compatible sites to its network in a decade. Past expansion has been limited to buyouts of Nextel and Clearwire, both of which included networks of different technologies. Organic growth has not been on the table for Sprint in some time. Sprint is expected to announce these plans in the not too distant future, once finalization of details and funding is complete.

 

Since the beginning of the year, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has hinted to this network expansion in social media and in pep talks to various Sprint employees. Some of whom have contacted S4GRU after hearing Marcelo’s vague references in meetings about the upcoming expansion. But this is the first time we have received specific information from inside Sprint.

 

The purpose of these 9,000 new sites is to expand coverage into new markets, add critical rural coverage where high roaming occurs, capture lost coverage from the shutdown of the old Nextel iDEN network, extend coverage to new suburban areas, and densify the network within existing coverage.

 

This plan is very targeted by market and includes a significant capital spend investment. The affected areas are seen as critical to Sprint for future growth and reduction of operating expenses in key roaming areas.

 

With the useable area of Sprint’s low frequency spectrum in the SMR 800 band about to expand even to the border areas, thus allowing nationwide coverage, the buildout of new markets and new rural areas has never been more practical or obtainable to Sprint. Allowing for new areas to have a less tight buildout requirement in site density in small towns and along highways and increase signal strength indoors in cities. The new management of Sprint sees this as the point at which they can move forward and accomplish these once seemingly lofty goals.

 

The juicy details

 

S4GRU recently received some details of the project from an internal Sprint source, speaking off the record. The current details of the plan breakdown as follows:

  • 1,100 - Decommissioned iDEN sites converted for new Sprint CDMA/LTE coverage and increased density in some key under served areas (Dualband and Triband)
  • 1,600 – New coverage expansion sites targeting high roaming areas and key identified market expansion areas (Dualband and Triband)
  • 800 – New Dualband sites in exurban and new suburban areas places with new or projected population growth
  • 500 – New Triband sites in Urban and Suburban areas to infill coverage where 1900 and 2600 currently do not reach or reach well and 800 capacity would also be improved
  • 5,000 – New Urban and Suburban TDD-LTE 2600 “Spark” only sites infilling existing coverages for better signal quality, indoor performance, and capacity. It is not known the mix of macro sites and small cell sites.

One exciting part of this addition to S4GRU is capturing decommissioned iDEN sites. This is something that we have long advocated. In a takeoff I did of the iDEN sites back in 2012, I estimated that Sprint needed only approximately 1,000 of the iDEN sites to equalize coverage for the CDMA/LTE network and densify some critical areas of some lacking markets. Like Baton Rouge and Grand Rapids. Perhaps decision makers at Sprint read S4GRU after all? I am happy to see my estimate was quite close to theirs.

 

Interestingly, there is no mention of Clearwire only sites that are in good locations for Sprint to expand or densify Network Vision CDMA and LTE. Not to mention also the 700+ Clearwire Protection Sites. Many of which are in places Sprint does not currently offer service. Like my corner of the Dakotas.

 

Project Ocean

 

In addition to this new Expansion Project, Sprint also already has two existing projects under way for targeted regional expansion based on recent acquisition. In Missouri and Central Illinois, Sprint is working on Project Ocean, which involves adding more than 100 former U.S. Cellular sites. Some of these sites are already online with many more coming online within the next 6-8 months.

 

The bulk of these adds are in Suburban St. Louis. However, there are a couple dozen rural USCC sites that are also being captured in the Project Ocean program. Sites where demographics are supportive to expansion or high roaming costs make the additional sites worthwhile.

 

Project Cedar

 

A thousand miles to the northwest, Sprint is embarking on Project Cedar in Montana. A plan to add 230 sites to the Sprint network in the Treasure State. Sprint purchased the defunct network assets from Chinook Wireless back in August of 2014. Chinook Wireless operated their service under the Cellular One name in Montana. Project Cedar takes the Chinook Wireless decommissioned sites and adds Network Vision DualBand and TriBand sites in their place.

 

We assume Project Cedar is being done by Samsung, as past geographic maps from Sprint show this area to be Samsung. There was a Field Implementation Test (FIT) for LTE Band 26 (SMR 800MHz) done by Samsung in Montana back in 2013. We never did find out where in Montana this FIT was conducted, and it may even be live for commercial traffic now. S4GRU members travelling in Montana, be on the look out for B26 LTE signals and new Samsung equipment being installed.

 

In my cursory review, it appears that the footprint offered by Chinook would have been served by 120-140 sites at best using PCS 1900 spacing. Since Sprint is looking to do 90-110 more than that, it’s possible Sprint could be extending service well into the Dakotas and Wyoming under this project. Beyond the reach of the old Cellular One coverage area.

 

I could see them covering all the Chinook coverage plus I-25, I-90, I-94 in Wyoming and the Dakotas as well as Casper, Gillette, Rapid City, Pierre, Williston and Bismarck with 230 sites. Heck, convert Swiftel’s 50 sites in Eastern South Dakota while you’re at it! Swiftel is a sore subject with us, and we will save that for another day.

 

Funding and implementation

 

According to the source, Project Ocean and Project Cedar are already funded. The additional 8,000 site expansion with unknown project name has funding earmarked for its planning and initial start. However funding sources and final scope are being worked out. It is likely Sprint will make no comment on the matter until these last two items are resolved probably next quarter.

 

However, Sprint is already moving on initial planning and key sites as they come available. No good opportunity will be lost during the planning process. And maybe there are some more regional plans in play?

 

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I agree that AZ is in desperate need of 800mhz however, even without 800mhz, you're really missing out if you don't have a tri-band phone.  B41 is popping up all over... What are you waiting for?

 

To be honest, Its staying with sprint. I was actually talking about dropping them then i pulled up good ol' s4gru and saw this, so now idk. 

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Fierce wireless calls out S4GRU and says new cell sites are closer to 20,000 not 9,000.

http://www.fiercewireless.com/story/sprint-expand-and-improve-lte-network-may-add-20000-cell-sites/2015-02-26

 

Called out? Hardly. I believe the 20,000 number that the Fierce source references includes Clearwire sites that Sprint is keeping and not decommissioning. An inadvertent double up of numbers. I was solely focusing on new site adds to the network. S4GRU already counts all the existing unique Clearwire sites in our totals. So I just see the Fierce article as further corroboration to our story.

 

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Does this mean that Sprint could expand their coverage to Alaska?

 

Yes, they could.  However I have nothing to confirm that, yet.  Given the significant Clearwire Expedience network in Anchorage that Sprint inherited, you would think they would at least convert that at a minimum.

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I hope a good deal of these new sites will be in markets that don't have Clearwire sites. I know a lot of markets have already benefitted from the added density.

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Exciting news in all respects and thanks to Robert for bringing this to light, especially the project details (that are lacking in the FW story). 

 

My takeaway is that network expansion will be done to largely accomplish 2 things:  comply with buildout requirements (as AJ has noted in past reports) and, as Robert's story reports, eliminate roaming costs in strategic areas.  While I hope that they eliminate some 'bad actors' (i.e. Swiftel as Robert mentions and nTelos as others have commented on), I believe that capital constraints will economically restrict what they can to and Masa's commitments to work with CCA/RRRP program will politically limit what they can do. (as an aside, I'll be intently looking for statements from Sprint on how these efforts reconcile with the CCA/RRRP program and hope that they have a very synergistic message regarding their expansion and continued commitment to working with smaller carriers in rural areas.)

 

The other interesting point that could be debated in this announcement is whether these actions signal any sentiment on the probability of the 600MHz auction.  I feel that the buildout requirements and the 

inevitable delays in the auction are driving action more than anything but it could be seen as pessimism that the 600MHz auction will occur, that Sprint will participate, or that Sprint will have the economic means to garner a significant enough portion of spectrum to make a difference.

 

The balance of the effort in my opinion really comes down to service reliability through densification:  adding sites to make the LTE airlink and Sprint's band classes work with PCS/CDMA site spacing.  While that's certainly important (especially for RootMetrics, et al, rankings), I'm more keen on Sprint achieving overall network size parity with the duopoly. 

 

Overall, its a continuation of the 'build it and they will come' strategy.  Unfortunately, there are 4 companies building ballparks in cornfields right now.  I just hope that Sprint's field is [insert your favorite MLB ballpark analogue here], not my neighborhood vacant lot where kids play stickball.

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Exciting news in all respects... 

 

I enjoyed reading your analysis. Good post.

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How many nextel sites did they just decommission?  Surely some of those could have been used for this project?

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While it's good that Sprint is planning expanded coverage, where will it occur, what's the realistic completion date for the new expanded 9000 sites?  Up and running means everything.

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How many nextel sites did they just decommission?  Surely some of those could have been used for this project?

 

They decommissioned over 28,000 iDEN macro sites.  Only approximately 600-700 provided unique coverage not covered by the Sprint CDMA network.  The additional 400-500, Sprint will be keeping to increase signal density in areas that are lacking.

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While it's good that Sprint is planning expanded coverage, where will it occur, what's the realistic completion date for the new expanded 9000 sites?  Up and running means everything.

 

We do not have information about completion dates at this time or counts of what is going where outside of Project Ocean and Project Cedar.  The planning of this network expansion is quite early in the process.  Funding is going to be a significant factor in the scheduling.

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Looks like the FCC approvals for the GS6 and One M9 just came out... hint hint S4GRU ;-)

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Looks like the FCC approvals for the GS6 and One M9 just came out... hint hint S4GRU ;-)

 

We are working toward an article that may publish tomorrow.  :tu:

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I can't wait for this to Start. San Diego has been one of the fastest growing areas in the country and Sprint just hasn't kept up. We need so many new towers to fill in the gaps. Even Verizon with their 700 Mhz spectrum has needed to add several new sites where I live. I hope Sprint doesn't put San Diego on the back burner again.

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Does this means Erie PA, Northeast Ohio, Northwest PA and Western most part of NY will be 4G / LTE

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What is the difference between these two buckets of sites?

  • 500 – New Triband sites in Urban and Suburban areas to infill coverage where 1900 and 2600 currently do not reach or reach well and 800 capacity would also be improved
  • 5,000 – New Urban and Suburban TDD-LTE 2600 “Spark” only sites infilling existing coverages for better signal quality, indoor performance, and capacity. It is not known the mix of macro sites and small cell sites.

Do the 500 tri-band sites include CDMA whereas the 5,000 "Spark"-only sites are LTE-only? Or is it something else?

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Sure would be nice to see rural Alabama get some love as well. Esp between Bham and Montgomery..as there are HUGE blotches in coverage.

TIme will tell.

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Does this means Erie PA, Northeast Ohio, Northwest PA and Western most part of NY will be 4G / LTE

 

Most of these sites (especially in Erie and the NY-17 corridor) are GMO sites.  Sprint has not funded full build conversion of these sites to have them upgraded to LTE.  Until Sprint prioritizes this area and funds the conversion, there will be no LTE.  Because Sprint tries not to do LTE on GMO's.  This will not likely happen this year.

 

Most Sprint sites in NE Ohio have already been upgraded.  And the few that have not, will likely be done in 2015.

 

None of the areas you mentioned really are a part of the expansion projects referenced in the article.

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What is the difference between these two buckets of sites?

  • 500 – New Triband sites in Urban and Suburban areas to infill coverage where 1900 and 2600 currently do not reach or reach well and 800 capacity would also be improved
  • 5,000 – New Urban and Suburban TDD-LTE 2600 “Spark” only sites infilling existing coverages for better signal quality, indoor performance, and capacity. It is not known the mix of macro sites and small cell sites.

Do the 500 tri-band sites include CDMA whereas the 5,000 "Spark"-only sites are LTE-only? Or is it something else?

 

Yes, you are correct.  The tri-band sites include CDMA, and LTE on 800 and 1900.  Whereas the Spark only sites will include LTE on 2600 only.  Because they are density infill areas where Sprint CDMA and LTE 800/1900 completely cover on existing sites, but because of the weaker propagation of 2600MHz, they need an additional site in between towers to make 2600MHz seamless.

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While I understand the background info is a broad paint brush, was there anything to indicate what part of the country will get the SPARK?

I am waiting to upgrade my equipment until SPARK has a chance to come to Omaha, Nebraska.

Thank you for the shared info.

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While I understand the background info is a broad paint brush, was there anything to indicate what part of the country will get the SPARK?

I am waiting to upgrade my equipment until SPARK has a chance to come to Omaha, Nebraska.

Thank you for the shared info.

 

Unfortunately, we did not have any details further than what was presented.  Since the work has not been funded yet and everything open to being chopped, the source did not provide that level of detail.  And since final plans could change drastically, it would not be very useful either.

 

Robert

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