Sprint has relatively recently become America's fourth largest national carrier, as T-Mobile US overtook it by subscriber numbers last year. Sprint has struggled in recent years against the headwind of a reputation for poor customer services and network coverage. One of Sprint's issues is that it does not have the necessary infrastructure to roll out comprehensive national coverage and instead the business would work on providing the best coverage on a city by city, or region by region, basis. Sprint also uses different frequencies compared with its rivals and owns a significant amount of spectrum at the 2.5 GHz point. The higher the frequency, the poorer the range and easier it is for the signal to be blocked by buildings and walls, however the higher the potential performance (both speed and capacity) of any given network technology. There has been much discussion in the industry as to how Sprint can turn things around to improve coverage and now, Sprint's Chief Financial Officer, Tarek Robbiati has been talking about Sprint's networking strategy. The company announced last year that it would not be taking part in the FCC's 600 MHz spectrum auction for a number of reasons, including its considerable spectrum holdings at the 2.5 GHz point.
In short, Robbiati has confirmed that the carrier has an inadequate number of towers, or masts, in order to compete with competitors in the same way. Sprint is unable to densify its network in such a way so as to catch up with AT&T, T-Mobile US and Verizon Wireless, the other US national carriers – and simultaneously invest in a next generation, 5G, network. Instead, it seems that Sprint's plans revolve around deploying this 2.5 GHz spectrum for next generation networking. Robbiati explained that the higher the frequency, the greater the capacity and this would be important. He made reference to the networking plans that Sprint's competitors have been discussing and how each owns spectrum in the very high frequency arena, typically bordering on microwave territory, which highlights that all carriers will need the higher capacity airwaves in order to make next generation networks perform as expected. However, Robbiati goes on to explain that the high frequency masts have a short range – Sprint has approximately 40,000 masts across North America, compared with most competitors having 50,000 masts. This shortfall in the number of available masts means that conventional network densification techniques will not work for Sprint: there aren't enough masts to go around.
Unfortunately, whilst Sprint have made it clear that conventional network engineering does not work for Sprint, the stated plans are vague for the network going forward. Sprint is to invest in more smaller cells rather than trying to purchase or build larger, macro, cell sites. This plan will result in a lower cost per site but of course will be balanced by the carrier needing to use many more. Given the carrier's decision not to participate in the 600 MHz spectrum auction, it would appear that Sprint are out of options and this is their only way to develop and push their network forwards. However, should things be successful, the lessons Sprint learn deploying the new generation network should prove invaluable when rolling out the 5G network in the coming years.