Sprint touts 65% increase in data speeds in 2017, looks to 256 QAM and 4X4 MIMO

Sprint said its users saw a 65% year-over-year increase in average download speeds this year, and the carrier vowed to roll out 256 QAM and 4X4 MIMO to deliver data faster in 2018.

John Saw, the carrier’s chief technology officer, cited data from Ookla’s Speedtest app indicating an average download speed on its network of 23.9 Mbps last month, up from 14.5 Mbps during the same period last year. Saw credited small-cell advances such as its Magic Box and new deployment techniques such as air poles and strand mounts with the accelerated data speeds.

“One of our biggest accomplishments this year has been tackling the small cell challenge,” Saw wrote in a prepared statement. “We did this by developing a host of solutions that address the roadblocks that have plagued traditional deployments.”

Saw also noted that Sprint ended the year offering 15 devices that support HPUE, which allows the carrier to extend its coverage of 2.5 GHz spectrum.

And the executive outlined details on Sprint’s plans to further boost speeds in the new year. Sprint will upgrade every tower to use all three of its spectrum bands—800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz—and will bring “thousands” of new cell sites online to expand its network footprint. The operator will also “aggressively” deploy Massive MIMO, building on tests performed this year with Samsung, which can help increase capacity up to tenfold, Saw said.

“In 2018 you’ll also see us roll-out 256 QAM and 4X4 MIMO nationwide for greater spectral efficiency and faster data speeds,” Saw vowed. “These critical ingredients will join three-channel carrier aggregation (using 60 MHz of 2.5 GHz), already available today in more than 100 top markets, to form the Sprint recipe for Gigabit Class LTE service.”

Finally, he reiterated Sprint’s commitment to begin to deploy commercial 5G services by late 2019.

The nation’s fourth-largest wireless network operator has lowered its capex guidance several times over the last two years, raising the eyebrows of analysts who have questioned its ability to keep pace with the network upgrades of its rivals. But Sprint—which still carries $38 billion in debt, about half of which will come due over the next four years—recently promised to up its capex significantly starting next year, refocusing on traditional macrocells after making microcells a top priority over the last 18 months.

“The last year and a half, two years have been a great learning experience. We’ve tried to disrupt the way networks get built. We’ve been successful in certain areas and, to be fair, we haven’t been successful in others,” CEO Marcelo Claure conceded last month. “So we’re going to go toward a more traditional network build-out. Our friends at the tower companies I think are going to be very happy.”