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2018 could finally be the year Sprint’s network becomes good

Published Jan 31st, 2018 4:11PM EST
Sprint network coverage vs T-Mobile, Magic Box

Sprint has comfortably occupied the plucky underdog role among wireless carriers for the last five years. Its low prices and cheeky ads are out of necessity, not choice: Sprint’s network finishes in last place in every nationwide network comparison, and while its urban coverage has improved dramatically, it’s still not the network of choice for speed or reliability.

But things don’t always have to stay that way, and judging by what we’ve seen so far, it looks like Sprint is on course for a turnaround in 2018. Its innovative Magic Box small cell program is off to a flying start, its corporate overlord is piling in the cash for a network build-out, and the company is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the transition to 5G.

The Magic Box program is one of Sprint’s quietest successes from the last year. Essentially, the Magic Box is a miniature Sprint cell tower that the network sends to customers and they can place in their home. It connects wirelessly to Sprint’s network, using previous-unused mobile spectrum, so that it doesn’t rely on homeowners’ own Wi-Fi network for connectivity.

Deployment has been a rousing success so far. Sprint said today that it’s deployed over 80,000 Magic Boxes so far, with another 100,000 units on order and an eventual target of one million boxes. The company claims that on average, customers see speeds increase by 200 percent when they put a Magic Box in their home or office.

It’s a clever move by Sprint because Magic Boxes are basically just small cell units with a wireless backhaul. Small cells are a new trend in the wireless industry, and all four carriers have started deploying small cells in public areas like malls, hotels, and even on street lamps. Unfortunately, deploying conventional small cells is an expensive and time-consuming process with permits, wires needing to be installed, and a specialized crew needed to install everything. The Magic Box, on the other hand, just needs to be plugged into a wall socket, and Sprint’s network is suddenly that much better.

In addition to the Magic Box program, Sprint also appears to be rolling ahead with conventional small cell deployments. Wells Fargo analysis, seen by Fierce Wireless, indicates that Sprint has issued requests for proposals (RFPs) to network companies to build macro cell towers, small cell stations, and fiber backhauls. That’s indicative of a major push to build out Sprint’s network in the near future.

“Sprint is real,” Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche said in a note seen by Fierce. “The RFPs are coming at an increasingly growing rate (and have built since the CFO change). These RFPs are wide in scope – macros, small cells and fiber. One contact even indicated S [Sprint] has already placed orders from some of these antennas.”