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Sprint’s bold gambit to catch up with AT&T and Verizon

Published Sep 29th, 2015 7:00PM EDT
Sprint 600MHz Auction AT&T Verizon

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Next year, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to hold an auction for spectrum on the 600MHz band, which is prime real estate for wireless carriers that want contiguous low-band spectrum for their wireless services. Sprint, however, will not be taking part in it. You may find this strange since Sprint has traditionally languished behind AT&T and Verizon in network quality for years — shouldn’t it want to get as much high-quality spectrum as it can? However, Sprint already has a giant pile of spectrum in its portfolio that it’s just now using to its fullest potential.

FROM EARLIER: 5 reasons Android fans are already complaining about the Nexus 5X

When Sprint completed its acquisition of Clearwire just over two years ago, it acquired a huge trove of spectrum licenses. This big spectrum stash is allowing Sprint to deploy a technology called carrier aggregation that lets it send data over two different signals at once. Sprint has deployed this technology in Denver and so far has seen promising early results — the most recent RootMetrics data in Denver gave Sprint the highest overall score.

Sprint is hoping that the Denver experience can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

“Denver is a microcosm of what we want the rest of the country to be,” Sprint CEO Marcelo Clare recently said at Goldman Sachs’ big wireless conference. “Denver was already pretty dense and we decided the sites the way I want to see the rest of the country… if you combine spectrum, large blocks of spectrum, you combine that with a densification of the network, and you combine that with carrier aggregation, to basically 2CA, then we have the ability to have the best network in those specific markets. And the new iPhone that’s launching in 7 days is going to have two carrier aggregation, which is something so important to Sprint.”

The carrier’s goal is to be either No. 1 or No. 2 in network quality in 80% of major American markets by the end of 2017, which sounds ambitious but which is also a necessity for Sprint since it needs to fight the perception that it will always be a step behind.

All the same, couldn’t Sprint still benefit from having even more spectrum on the coveted 600MHz band to add even more capacity? Claure explained to Goldman that “the problem with low-band spectrum of 600MHz is that from the time you get your hands on that spectrum, by the time you farm out the spectrum, by the time you actually deploy it, you’re talking 2020, 2021; so right now, we’re playing for the next five years.”

This is all well and good except that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile aren’t going to be standing still and will be aggressively acquiring 600MHz licenses. Whether Sprint’s bold gambit is enough to keep up with its rivals over the long haul is something that’s very much still up in the air.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.


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