How do you give an LTE network better coverage? Pump up the volume. Sprint today announced a new network technology that essentially turns up the volume on some of its phones' radios, which will extend the coverage of its fast, deep 2.5GHz spectrum.
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"High Performance User Equipment," or HPUE, will debut in a "yet to be named Samsung flagship product" (read: Samsung Galaxy S8). Later in 2017, it may appear in flagships from LG, HTC, Motorola, and even ZTE and Alcatel.
"There's going to be a progression," said Sprint's VP of product development, Ryan Sullivan. "This one will be a progression that's about two years before we get to a point where it's up and down our portfolio."
HPUE will expand the range of 2.5GHz cells, Sprint's fastest, from the current outdoor state of 77 percent of traditional PCS coverage to 99 percent of PCS coverage, the company said. Indoors, 2.5GHz will get about 90 percent of the coverage of Sprint's slower PCS LTE network.
And although it's pumping more power, "it should have minimal impact on battery," as it's using the radio more efficiently, Sprint CTO John Saw said.
Sprint Goes Gigabit
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But that's not all. Sprint also said it's going to be compatible with Qualcomm's X16 modem scheme for enabling gigabit LTE speeds. Sprint's network will be able to work with a variant of the upcoming Netgear hotspot Telstra is launching in 2017 in Australia, Sullivan said.
All of this comes against a background of Sprint pulling itself out of a deep hole that it's been in for about five years. According to Fierce Wireless's look at wireless carrier performance, for the past year or so, Sprint has been slowly growing after years of subscriber losses. But it's been outpaced in subscriber growth by T-Mobile, and thus became the fourth-largest wireless carrier after years of being third.
"We've done a lot of work over the last year, and we know that out network is not perfect, but we think it has improved significantly," said Sprint's Technical COO, Gunther Ottendorfer. (He's shown above, with one of Sprint's new small cells.)
Sprint's deep bench of relatively high-frequency 2.5GHz spectrum has long been an opportunity and a trial for the carrier. The spectrum has a lot of capacity—it can carry a lot of data, and it can do so quickly. But it can't do it over long distances, thus the need to pump up the volume.
The carrier has been taking other strategies to spread 2.5GHz, too. Small cells are a big one: boxes that fit on urban light poles and don't need the heavy installation "macro cells" do. Saw said in 2017, Sprint will be going to "massive MIMO," which are boxes full of antennas, able to segment cells and target users more precisely for better coverage and speeds.
That's led to some wins recently for Sprint. In our 2016 Fastest Mobile Networks tests, Sprint won three cities, and it would have won four if we were just looking at downloads. At the time, we cited "coverage issues" as the carrier's main problem, and that's something with which HPUE could help.