Sprint taps into its spectrum for fast LTE, with room to grow

The carrier can offer 50-60Mbps peak speeds in five cities

Sprint is flexing its network muscle with technologies to combine frequencies for gigabit-speed performance and to let subscribers maintain data sessions while moving from one band of the network to another.

On Wednesday, the fourth-largest U.S. carrier bragged about its new capabilities and demonstrated a high-speed service it calls Sprint Spark, with current peak speeds of 50-60Mbps (bits per second) and the potential to exceed 1Gbps. It also promoted three upcoming handsets that will be able to take advantage of all three of its spectrum bands.

Sprint is in catch-up mode against its bigger rivals, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and is looking to use its huge spectrum holdings as an advantage. The company is deploying LTE in its 800MHz and 1.9GHz bands as well as the 2.5GHz spectrum it acquired with Clearwire, on which the Sprint Spark service runs. Sprint prides itself on its Network Vision project, which has built a network that's flexible enough to support multiple technologies.

In the 2.5GHz band, Sprint plans to combine different sets of frequencies and make them act like one block of spectrum. The company used this technique in a demonstration at its Silicon Valley lab on Wednesday, showing peak throughput of 1.3Gbps (bits per second). More aggregation could offer as much as 2Gbps, Sprint said.

Other contributors to Spark performance include multiple antennas, transmitters and receivers. Sprint also plans to deploy small cells for coverage, capacity and speed starting next year, while keeping the number of full-size "macro" cells on its network steady at about 55,000 for the next few years.

The Sprint Spark service is available now in five markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Tampa, Florida. It will reach 100 million U.S residents by the end of next year, Sprint estimated.

Now the only missing piece is the hardware to enjoy Spark. The first devices that will be able to use all three of Sprint's bands will go on sale Nov. 8, the carrier said. They are the LG G2, Samsung Galaxy Mega and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini. The Samsung devices will get a software upgrade for tri-band capability shortly after launch, and the LG will get its upgrade early next year.

Sprint's tri-band devices will be able to move from one band without interrupting a subscriber's data session, the carrier said. However, speeds will vary: Using LTE on its 1.9GHz spectrum, Sprint estimates peak speeds of 30Mbps and average speeds of 6Mbps to 8Mbps.

The overall reach of Sprint's LTE will hit about 200 million by the end of this year and rise to 250 million by the middle of next year, the company said. Also on Wednesday, Sprint reported financial results for the third quarter, including a total subscriber count of 54.9 million and a net loss of 313,000 subscribers.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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