Sprint promises to launch nationwide mobile 5G network in first half of 2019

Sprint’s CEO today promised the carrier will launch mobile 5G services on its 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings on a nationwide basis in the first half of 2019.

“We’re working with Qualcomm and network and device manufacturers in order to launch the first truly mobile [5G] network in the United States by the first half of 2019,” Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said today during the carrier’s quarterly earnings conference call with investors. “This development will put Sprint at the forefront of technology innovation on par with other leading carriers around the world … We believe our next-gen network will truly differentiate Sprint over the next couple of years.”

That timeline would put Sprint ahead of T-Mobile in terms of launching nationwide mobile 5G; T-Mobile has promised to start its launch in 2019 and finish it in 2020. 

Claure explained that Sprint will achieve this by deploying antennas on its cell towers that support massive MIMO transmissions—he said the carrier can upgrade that hardware to the 5G NR standard via a software update. He added that Sprint offers 2.5 GHz capabilities on roughly half of its towers today, and will expand those capabilities to almost all of the carrier’s towers in the coming year. It also plans to increase the number of its macro tower sites by around 20%.

The CEO said Sprint’s 5G buildout will be bolstered by the deployment of roughly 40,000 outdoor small cell solutions, 15,000 strand mounted small cells through the company’s partnerships with cable companies, along with the deployment of up to 1 million Sprint Magic Boxes.

Interestingly, Sprint CTO John Saw added that a portion of Sprint's 5G efforts would go toward purchasing more fiber from companies like Zayo for Sprint's backhaul.

Claure noted that Sprint owns roughly 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz in top 100 U.S. markets, giving it the ability to offer 5G services on a nationwide basis, rather than through “hotspots” operating in millimeter-wave spectrum like AT&T and Verizon are planning to do.

“Sprint is the only carrier that doesn’t have to compromise what 5G can deliver because we can deliver super wide channels of more than 100 MHz while still delivering mid-band coverage characteristics,” he said.

Indeed, Claure said Sprint already has agreements to deploy 5G with tower, silicon and handset vendors. “We have come to an agreement with Qualcomm that they are going to be able to release this toward the later end of 2018, the new chipsets,” he said. “And we have had a conversation with a leading Korean manufacturer to basically have devices ready by the first half of 2019.” Both Samsung and LG are Korean handset manufacturers.

Importantly, Claure said Sprint plans to charge more for its 5G services than it currently does for its 4G unlimited data service. “It’s going to be very difficult for our competitors to increase the price of unlimited, but we’re going to have a lot of room to increase our price of unlimited to get to similar prices as Verizon and AT&T in the future,” he said. “You get that by having that amazing network. You get that by being the first one to launch 5G. So we’re looking at 5G as an amazing opportunity for the company not only for the position of the company, but also to charge for the blazing fast speeds.”

Continued Claure: “As we deploy our network, you’re going to see fiber like speeds” alongside expanded coverage, he said. “So, when you look at all that, there’s absolutely no reason why we should be discounting of Verizon and AT&T and T-Mobile, which is what we do today. So, we look at it as the best is yet to come as it relates to a great product, and for us to be pricing similar to our competitors in the future. Now in the meantime we’re going to continue to be the price leader until we roll out our 5G network, and you’re going to potentially see some modest price increases in the next year, but nothing substantial.”

Sprint’s 5G promise puts it ahead of T-Mobile, which has said it will begin deploying a 5G network in 2019 on the way to offering nationwide service in 2020. T-Mobile has said it will leverage all of its spectrum bands, including its 600 MHz spectrum, for its 5G deployment.

Meanwhile, AT&T has said it will offer mobile 5G services in roughly a dozen cities this year, though it hasn’t said what type of spectrum it will use for that deployment. The carrier has also said it will offer a 5G “puck” on the device side this year.

And Verizon has said it will launch fixed 5G services in three to five cities this year using its millimeter-wave spectrum.