Sprint’s CTO outlines network buildout plans, 5G preparations

Sprint CTO John Saw, Ph.D., said the company plans to add 2.5 GHz and 800 MHz antennas to virtually all of its existing cell sites and will also add new cell sites to its network to grow its coverage footprint. He also said the company is laying the groundwork to deploy 5G network technology, though he said Sprint is planning to offer mobile 5G services and not fixed 5G services like Verizon.

“We have no plans to launch fixed wireless at the moment,” Saw said today during an appearance at a Wall Street investor event. “Right now I think our focus is on mobile broadband; the economics are so much better. Maybe when you look into the 5G world, when we have more spectral efficiency, and potentially new spectrum, we can revisit the opportunity for fixed wireless.”

Verizon is planning to launch fixed 5G services in three to five cities this year.

As for 5G, Saw said that the operator is currently laying the groundwork to launch an eventual mobile 5G service, though he didn’t offer a specific timeline or launch date. Saw added that, even though most of the operator’s LTE traffic is carried over its current 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings, that band is present on only about 70% of the operator’s cell sites, covering roughly 200 million POPs. Saw said the operator plans to upgrade virtually all of its cell sites to support its 2.5 GHz spectrum, while also adding massive MIMO capabilities on the path to 5G.

“Massive MIMO, it’s going to be a bridge to 5G,” Saw explained. “Because we have so much spectrum at 2.5, I can allocate half of my spectrum to LTE Advanced and other half for 5G. … And I can run 5G NR and LTE simultaneously on the same massive MIMO site, without climbing the tower again in 2019. So I can simultaneously support both over this massive MIMO radio. So as we build massive MIMO this year, we’re really starting to build a 5G network that also supports LTE Advanced. So it kills two birds with one stone.”

Added Saw: “And then over the same massive MIMO base stations, we’re going to launch 5G NR when it’s available,” he said. “So it’s a more pragmatic plan.”

Saw discussed a variety of Sprint’s other networking efforts, including:

Magic Box. Saw said Sprint’s Magic Box is basically a mini base station that can create a bubble of wireless service by connecting to a nearby Sprint tower. “We have shipped like tens of thousands of them by now,” Saw said, adding that the company plans to eventually ship “hundreds of thousands” of the devices.

Small cells. “We have a really strong pipeline now of small cells. It took us a little bit longer, as it did the rest of the industry, to get a strong pipeline of permits,” Saw said. “And we do have that now to build more small cells.”

The Altice deal. “The Altice agreement is unique,” Saw said, explaining that the cable operator will be able to offer wireless service through an MVNO with Sprint, while Sprint will be able to tap into Altice’s wired network in places like Long Island to more quickly deploy small cells. Saw added that those small cells will be backhauled through Altice’s DOCSIS network: “We obviously have the option of running dedicated fiber, but I think to get it out fast and to leverage what is already there, I think we’ll manage to use what is already there, to use the DOCSIS backhaul that we have with Altice.”