Sprint 4G Rollout Updates
Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 10:01 AM MST
Within the wireless industry and among wireless enthusiasts, it is fairly common knowledge that Verizon Wireless (VZW) and AT&T Mobility (AT&T) have landed Boardwalk and Park Place, respectively, in terms of wireless spectrum for LTE deployment. (Pardon the Monopoly…er, duopoly pun.) VZW has huge Upper 700 MHz C block 22 MHz licenses that it holds nationwide. And AT&T has a not quite as consistently strong but still substantial collection of Lower 700 MHz B block 12 MHz and C block 12 MHz licenses that it can span together in many markets for a similarly large bandwidth LTE network.
In order to compete with VZW’s and AT&T’s LTE deployments, Sprint has put together a multi-pronged course of action.
- Sprint is rolling out its Network Vision platform this year, utilizing its “green field” PCS G block 10 MHz nationwide licenses to deploy an initial 5 MHz x 5 MHz LTE channel.
- Sprint has inked a deal to host LightSquared’s L-band Ancillary Terrestrial Component LTE bandwidth on the Network Vision platform.
- Sprint plans to “refarm” its rebanded SMR 800 MHz spectrum for LTE as the former Nextel iDEN network is shut down over the next two years.
- Sprint expects to gain TD-LTE capacity in major markets once Clearwire starts to shift its focus from WiMAX to LTE.
However, the LightSquared agreement appears to be living on borrowed time, since LightSquared has failed to solve the ATC interference issues required to satisfy its FCC waiver. And neither SMR 800 MHz spectrum nor Clearwire TD-LTE is likely to be widely available until 2013 or 2014.
Sprint LTE Deployment to Earn an A, B, or C?
So, Sprint could stand pat with its planned 5 MHz x 5 MHz LTE roll out (while VZW launches 10 MHz x 10 MHz in all of its LTE markets, AT&T in most of its LTE markets). Or, better yet, Sprint could add a fifth prong to its plan of attack: Sprint leverages its existing PCS A-F block spectrum assets for an additional LTE channel in many top markets.
At the first FCC PCS 1900 MHz auction that ended almost 17 years ago in early spring 1995, Sprint and its partners came away the big winners, acquiring PCS A block 30 MHz or B block 30 MHz licenses across an overwhelming majority of the 49 MTAs that make up the 50 states. Today, Sprint retains its full 30 MHz allotment in greater than 24 major markets, including seven of the top 10 markets. Furthermore, Sprint has acquired additional spectrum in six other major markets to increase its licensed PCS A-F bandwidth in those as well to 30 MHz. And, finally, Sprint has three other major markets in which it retains or has acquired just under 30 MHz of PCS spectrum. I call these three groups, respectively, “original,” “accumulated,” and “borderline” 30 MHz PCS A-F bandwidth markets.
What is the magic amount of spectrum needed?
So, you might ask, “Why is 30 MHz the magic number?” Well, actually, 20 MHz is the greater figure of merit, while 30 MHz represents a latently important 10 MHz above and beyond that core 20 MHz bandwidth.
If you examine Sprint’s PCS A-F spectrum holdings nationwide, you find that the minimum bandwidth that Sprint holds in almost any major market is 20 MHz, which is sufficient spectrum for six (or, in some cases, seven) CDMA2000 carrier channels plus guard bands. Such 20 MHz bandwidth markets include Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, etc. With Sprint’s cell site density achieved over the last 15 years, 20 MHz seems to represent a sufficient bandwidth “floor.”
For example, on a recent trip to Chicago, I noted that Sprint is operating at or near the maximum carrier channel capacity of its 20 MHz of spectrum. I encountered three CDMA1X and two EV-DO channel assignments out of a possible total of six channels. Moreover, my own empirical observations in 30 MHz markets seem to corroborate the 20 MHz bandwidth “floor.”
Kansas City is one such market, a PCS A block 30 MHz “original” market. Of course, it is Sprint’s home market, in which Sprint is a close number two in market share, thus should be a reasonably demanding market for Sprint. Even though Sprint has 30 MHz (up to 11 carrier channels) to play with in Kansas City, I encounter most regularly three CDMA1X and three EV-DO channel assignments. And those six carrier channels plus guard bands occupy 17.5 MHz out of Sprint's 30 MHz license.
Just because not all markets can do it, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done
To summarize, Sprint has demonstrated that it can successfully operate many, if not all of its CDMA2000 markets in no greater than 20 MHz of deployed bandwidth. In the 24 aforementioned “original” PCS A-F 30 MHz markets, as well as the six “accumulated” PCS A-F 30 MHz markets, Sprint thus has 10 MHz of spectrum that it could ostensibly put to use for a second 5 MHz x 5 MHz LTE channel. Better yet, in four markets (including high tech hot beds Seattle and Austin), Sprint has “accumulated” the right combination of PCS C block and G block contiguous licenses that Sprint could actually deploy a 10 MHz x 10 MHz LTE channel to match VZW and AT&T.
Even in the three “borderline” markets where Sprint holds 25-27.5 MHz of PCS A-F spectrum, Sprint might still be able to operate CDMA1X and EV-DO within 15-17.5 MHz bandwidth, once more freeing up 10 MHz for a second LTE channel. Not to mention, once Sprint launches one LTE channel, the demands on existing EV-DO channels start to ease, thereby reducing the load on the limited CDMA2000 bandwidth.
Of course, Sprint does not have enough PCS A-F block spectrum to carve out a second LTE channel in all of its markets. But there is an elegant, collaborative solution to that problem. So, stay tuned for the next article in this three part series to learn how and why a PCS LTE spectrum and network sharing agreement would fit both Sprint and its prospective network partner to a “T”…
Sources: FCC, author’s notes