Sprint Nextel Corp. is poised Sunday to turn up the speed of its wireless network in Kansas City, St. Joseph and 13 markets in Texas and Georgia.
They are the first markets to get service from Sprint using Long Term Evolution, or LTE, technology. The move kick-starts Sprint’s effort to catch up to larger rivals Verizon Wireless and AT&T in the 4G race.
AT&T and Verizon already have been lighting up their LTE networks in various markets and added service in the Kansas City area last November.
AT&T and T-Mobile USA, the smallest of the top four carriers, also have been promoting their upgraded HSPA+ networks as faster than traditional 3G technology.
No. 3 carrier Sprint was the first to offer a 4G-speed service a few years ago by using Clearwire Corp.’s network that runs on WiMax technology. Sprint had said along the way that it would turn to faster LTE when it became available.
The larger carriers had decided to wait for LTE and have gotten there ahead of Sprint. Companies tend to upgrade technologies slowly because each leap only works on the newest phones and devices armed with that technology.
Sprint has been selling LTE phones and promoting an LTE hot spot ahead of its Sunday service launch.
Crews have been updating Sprint’s cell towers throughout the Kansas City area and in the other markets that launch the service Sunday.
The liftoff “is what we were waiting for, to get enough of a footprint where we were proud of what we could put in front of a customer,” said Bob Azzi, Sprint’s senior vice president of network.
Crews will continue to fill in spots on the edges of markets and bolster the service areas as more customers adopt LTE phones.
Sprint is working to launch LTE in additional markets later this year.
A map showing Sprint’s local LTE coverage floods most of the area south of the Missouri River but is less extensive on the north side. Customers’ 4G LTE service will be spotty on the edges of the coverage, for example being available in parts of Pleasant Hill but not throughout the community.
Azzi said the map represents “street” coverage, which may lag inside substantial structures such as a brick building. In the next few months, coverage will fill in and ultimately match Sprint’s broader 3G footprint, Azzi said.
Meanwhile, LTE Sprint phones automatically will switch to the 3G network where necessary without disrupting service. Sprint’s 3G service also is getting an upgrade.
Azzi said customers streaming videos on their LTE phones will see “very fast” service in LTE coverage and “fast” speeds when they rely on the 3G network.
Starting Monday morning, customers can check their location’s LTE coverage with an interactive map at Sprint’s website.
Sprint continues to provide its WiMax 4G service for customers with those phones.
Kansas City had to wait longer for 4G during the WiMax rollout because Clearwire was building the network. Sprint is a majority owner of Clearwire but has sought to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with its partner.
Clearwire is working to add LTE technology throughout its network, and Sprint plans to use that to add LTE capacity in a few years when it expects to need additional capacity.