Here’s why Sprint Corp. gets slammed in network speed tests and what it’s doing about it.
It turns out that Sprint’s network has a choke point. All of its customers’ app downloads, streaming video and Facebook posts have to squeeze into the narrowest wireless network among the four national carriers.
That’s why Sprint finishes with a thud even though all the companies use faster LTE, or Long Term Evolution, technology.
“We are not surprised by it,” said John Saw, Sprint’s chief network officer. “We are not happy about it. But we have a plan to do even better.”
Saw means better than Verizon, better than AT&T and better than T-Mobile. Sprint is promising customers a worst-to-first turnaround in the network battles.
“That is our expectation, that we will be able to leapfrog the competition,” Saw said.
Saw’s key to revving up the network is spectrum.
Spectrum is what makes wireless networks work. It’s the airwaves that carry signals from cellphones to cell towers and back again.
The amount of wireless spectrum a carrier has goes a long way to dictating how much traffic its network can handle. Here’s where tech types usually say spectrum is like a highway, and Saw is no exception. More spectrum means more lanes for the wireless highway.
From the beginning, Sprint’s LTE network has run on a relatively small slice of wireless spectrum. A skinny highway.
“That’s all we had,” Saw said. “My competitors are using two to three times the amount of spectrum.”
But Sprint has a lot more spectrum now. It came from Clearwire Corp., the wireless network partner Sprint bought last summer. Clearwire is where Saw had worked, so he knows about the spectrum it had.
Sprint has put part of the Clearwire spectrum trove to use in only a few places. Where it has, Saw said, the choke points have cleared and Sprint’s service has gotten speedier.
Last October, Sprint named this faster service Sprint Spark.
PCMag.com confirmed Spark’s impact and patchiness with its recent network speed tests in Chicago. Sprint’s network was “Sparky” around Navy Pier, Wrigley Field and another test site, it said. Other places, not so much.
“I was blown away,” Chicagoan Mark McClelland said of speed tests he did using his Sprint Samsung Galaxy S5.
McClelland uses his Sprint phone to connect his computer to the Web from his boat moored in a slip on the Chicago River. The software developer works there once a week.
Until recently, McClelland’s phone tether to the Net was too slow for his computer to download big developer tools he needs. It meant toting everything to a cafe or home for access to a faster Internet connection.
McClelland said he looked into running a DSL or a cable connection to his boat slip. When he heard about Spark, he upgraded his phone instead.
“Working from the boat, it totally works out for me,” McClelland said.
Saw said more customers will see benefits as Sprint lights up more of its towers with Spark.
“The Sprint network is getting better and better by the day,” he said.
And that’s with only a third of the Clearwire spectrum working wherever Spark is running. Revving up the network means putting three times as much spectrum to use.
Robert Herron is watching all this from his home in Rapid City, S.D.
Although he works in construction management, Herron leads what he calls “an amalgamation of nerds” focused on Sprint’s network. They gather online at www.s4gru.com, which stands for Sprint 4G Rollout Updates but is unaffiliated with the company.
“We’re not a business,” Herron said. “We don’t make any money. We have no motive other than it’s a hobby.”
In a word, groupies — 21,140 of them at last count. And as such, they know John Saw’s repertoire by heart.
Saw talks about field-testing 8T8R devices (it’s a network thing) and S4GRU has articles on spotting the ones manufactured by Samsung versus the ones made by Alcatel-Lucent or Nokia. They’ve got pictures, too.
“This is so dope. … I want these radios in ABQ!!” one New Mexico member replied on a photo gallery.
Herron even can explain the difference one letter makes, by describing the intra-band carrier aggregation (it’s a spectrum thing) that Saw plans at Sprint versus the inter-band carrier aggregation his competitors are working on.
“I’ll be curious who talked to you about that,” Saw said when asked about Herron’s description, which was spot on.
S4GRU also posts information about TDD-LTE, a key element in Saw’s explanation of how Sprint will beat the competition. It stands for Time Division Duplex, a “flavor” of LTE, and it is a different way to use wireless spectrum to handle more traffic.
Wireless networks in the United States split their highway lanes evenly between download and upload traffic. It made sense when cellphones mostly handled phone calls and both sides talked the same amount.
Thanks to all the Internet traffic generated by smartphones, there is now much more download traffic than upload traffic. For example, a small data request to Netflix unleashes a torrent of video streaming to your iPad.
But LTE networks still run two sets of lanes, half up and half down.
Sprint’s TDD flavor of LTE parses data both directions on all the lanes. Ferry a batch of download data, then a batch of upload, download, upload, and on and on. Hence the name Time Division Duplex or TDD-LTE.
Here’s where SoftBank comes in handy. It has been using TDD-LTE in Japan on the same type of spectrum that Sprint got from Clearwire. Saw said SoftBank’s experiences and the tools that it developed are helping at Sprint, and Sprint’s efforts are helping SoftBank.
Add 8T8R, intra-band carrier aggregation and all of the Clearwire spectrum and Sprint’s network will run faster and faster, Saw said.
Mark your 2016 calendar. That’s right. Sprint expects to need until the end of 2015 to reach Spark’s potential nationwide and to leapfrog the other carriers’ networks.
“It’s Sprint’s ace in the hole, and they need to get it deployed,” said Herron, who admits he’s getting impatient.