Sprint Plots Come-From-Behind Win With Unusual 5G Approach

  • Test network reaches 4GB per second, 100 times faster than 4G
  • Financial challenges, past network performance spell risks

Sprint Corp. has struggled for years with sub-par service, and is cutting network spending by 36 percent this year, yet Chief Technology Officer John Saw says the company has an edge in the next generation of wireless technology.

The smallest of the four nationwide U.S. wireless carriers demonstrated an experimental 5G network system in a parking lot outside Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Tuesday. It used tech partner Ericsson’s gear to beam signals from a transmitter on top of a van to a receiver on a golf cart loaded with data processors and power equipment 30 yards away. The speeds -- even through triple-paned tinted glass to simulate an office window -- reached 4 gigabits per second, more than 100 times faster than today’s fastest connections.

While Sprint’s larger rivals Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. have all announced plans to test 5G technology, the Overland Park, Kansas-based carrier is taking a different tack. Sprint, which is still trying to catch up with its peers in 4G, is attaching small-cell antennas to rooftops, street lamps and utility poles to saturate areas with signal coverage, using its vast stockpile of 2.5 gigahertz airwaves. Executives attribute the unconventional approach to Masayoshi Son, chairman of Sprint parent SoftBank Group Corp., who has looked for ways to improve Sprint’s network while contending with an unwieldy balance sheet.

Sprint holds more spectrum than any of its competitors, including Verizon and AT&T. The bulk of Sprint’s airwaves are high-frequency, which don’t travel well through buildings but are good for expanding network capacity and carrying more traffic. The idea is to be less reliant on big towers and more focused on getting smaller antennas closer to the street.

This is how wireless networks will be built in the future, Saw said, when consumers will need fast, nearby connections for everything from downloading movies to operating a driverless car. In a 4G network there is a few-milliseconds delay that translates to four feet of travel distance before braking, compared with an inch in a faster 5G network, he said.

“We have an advantage because we have the spectrum and we have the experience,” he said at the demo. “Our learning curve won’t be as steep as others who haven’t done this before.”

Sprint is aiming toward a 5G future even as it reduces capital spending, lowers prices to woo users and puts assets up as collateral to cut borrowing costs and pay down $33 billion in debt. While the company has stopped losing subscribers, it still needs better service quality to win more customers.

Sprint shares are up 4.7 percent for the year, outpacing the S&P 500 Index, which is up 1.3 percent. They were priced at $3.79 in early trading Thursday, little changed from Wednesday’s close.

To be sure, promises of new networks powered by high-frequency technologies have a history of going unfulfilled. Companies like Terabeam and AirFiber promised to deliver ultra-fast wireless connections and both failed to launch commercial networks. Other efforts like Verizon’s “cantenna” and AT&T’s Project Angel -- which Saw worked on earlier in his career -- never materialized. Saw said Project Angel was ahead of its time and lacked the technology and spectrum support that we have today.

“Why will it be any different this time,” said Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics LLC. “The past is the best predictor for the future.”

Philadelphia is the second stop on Sprint’s 5G tour that started in Santa Clara, California, with the opening of the Copa América Centenario soccer tournament. Sprint is running promotions in conjunction with the event.

Internet of Things

Suppliers including Ericsson, Nokia Oyj, Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. are all vying for key roles in what could be the largest and most lucrative expansion of the internet yet. Connections are projected to double by 2020 and reach 500 billion 10 years later as more mobile devices, robots, light sensors and drones all become part of the so-called internet of things.

More connections will require more signals, and that will require more coverage, Saw said.

“The guy with the most poles is going to win, and that’s even more true as I’m looking 10 years down the road,” Saw said.

As it stands today, there are no leaders among the carriers in the 5G race, Entner said.

“It’s still years before we’ll have 5G,” Entner, the Recon analyst, said. “Sprint’s biggest challenges right now are money and execution, and both seem to be lacking.”

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