Sprint CTO: Standalone 5G ‘very important feature’ on roadmap

LOS ANGELES—Although Sprint hasn’t always been first with every new wireless whiz-bang, it’s in the pool with the other U.S. carriers angling to deploy standalone (SA) 5G, the successor to the non-standalone (NSA) version.  

“The standalone standard is a very important feature for our road map. It will enable a lot of new capabilities,” especially low latency applications and slicing, said Sprint CTO John Saw during a Mobile World Congress Los Angeles (MWC LA) session featuring the CTOs from all four of the major carriers.

But don’t get too excited. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said, referring to the industry standards process. “I think [3GPP] Release 16 coming out next summer is going to clean up a lot of it. So we’re excited” about the prospects of what it can do.

RELATED: Qualcomm, Ericsson forge ahead on standalone 5G with successful data call

He noted that a demo at Ericsson’s booth here shows a stand-alone core connected to a Sprint Massive MIMO radio, streaming video over to a Qualcomm testbed. "We’re beginning to work with vendors on that,” and locking it’s down. “It’s coming.”

Once SA is ready, NSA probably will run alongside SA for a period of time. “We have to make sure that we don’t abandon LTE and LTE Advanced,” Saw said.  

RELATED: AT&T: We are definitely interested in both NSA and SA

As for densification for 5G, he said the hard part about building small cells is the permit and zoning process, and Sprint already has deployed 37,000 small cells. Its roadmap is to up grade those small cells with the same form factor or something smaller and upgrade them from LTE to 5G, he said.

Sprint has been deploying Massive MIMO to significantly improve network capacity. But when it first announced it was using that as a tool, there was a lot of skepticism about how it was going to accomplish that; the name suggests the equipment is big, when it’s not.

“The deployment has gone very smoothly. The form factor is actually smaller than our radios that we were upgrading,” Saw said. In terms of usage, it’s seeing customers use three to five times more data compared to LTE on the same footprint.

Sprint this week announced that it increased the 5G coverage in the nine cities where it’s commercially launched a 5G service, but, of course, if it’s able to merge with T-Mobile, it will be part of an ever better nationwide mobile network. For its part, T-Mobile said it’s going to cover 200 million people with its 5G at 600 MHz by the end of the year.

RELATED: Sprint expands 5G to cover 16M in 9 metro areas

Sprint also used MWC LA to introduce two new devices to its suite of indoor small cell solutions to improve data coverage and speeds in residences and businesses. One device is the Pebble, built by Casa Systems, the first femtocell from Sprint that offers an untethered Wi-Fi backhaul option in addition to the standard Ethernet connection required in traditional femtocells.

The Pebble uses a customer’s broadband connection rather than a cell tower connection so it can be used to provide service in areas outside of Sprint coverage. The Wi-Fi backhaul option allows a customer to place the device anywhere in their home where Wi-Fi is available without having to worry about running or connecting additional cables to their home router.

The other device, manufactured by Sercomm, is a new version of its Sprint Magic Box, which offers a plug-and-play, installation-free feature that automatically connects to the Sprint network for better data coverage and download and upload speeds indoors. Customers can also download an application for their handset to assist in configuration. The device is designed to enhance in-house LTE data coverage without relying on the fixed broadband connectivity.