Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) has been launching five to 10 LTE markets a month since last summer and is on track to initiate launches more quickly in 2013, according to internal correspondence.
"We expect to be able to launch a lot more markets per month and really see the trend ramp up as we go through the year," said Chad Elliott, Sprint's director of strategic technology programs, in an interview included in an article that appeared on the operator's internal employee website. The s4gru blog obtained the correspondence and republished the text.
During its fourth-quarter earnings announcement this week, Sprint said average current new sites on air per week have grown 83 percent from the third quarter.
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Sprint now officially offers LTE in 58 cities, has started construction in more than 450 cities and expects LTE will be available in nearly 170 additional cities over the coming months. At the time of Elliott's interview last month, Sprint was saying it offered LTE service in 49 cities and had announced nearly 200 markets where it was currently building out LTE.
Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter told FierceBroadbandWireless that Sprint has not reduced the number of cities where it plans to launch LTE but simply adjusted the forecast number to be more accurate as new cities came online.
"There's no disparity between the 170 and 200. It all just depends on how you look at it," she said.
In September, Sprint said it had fallen a quarter behind on its Network Vision rollout, which includes LTE deployment as well as upgrades to its CDMA network. At that time, the operator pushed back its previous goal of hitting 12,000 overhauled sites at the end of 2012. Sprint has now revamped more than 8,000 sites and is on track to hit the 12,000 goal at the end of this quarter. The company said more than 19,500 sites are ready for construction. Ultimately, Sprint will convert almost 40,000 total cell sites under Network Vision.
The carrier said it now expects to cover 200 million POPs with LTE by the end of 2013, a goal significantly lower than Sprint's original expectation of having 250 million POPs covered with LTE by the end of the year.
In the article on the internal website, Elliott was asked to respond to perceptions that Sprint's Network Vision 3G enhancement and LTE deployment program is progressing slowly, and he responded that the project is very complex.
"We have tens of thousands of towers that we need to modify, and each one has its own unique characteristics. Whether it is the landlord, the zoning that is required, a particular municipality and their rules, or working with the different backhaul providers, there are many different complexities that may impact the deployment process at an individual site," he said.
Simple things have sometimes tripped up Sprint's progress. For example, one municipality prevented Sprint from repainting a site's water tower until the weather became less humid.
Further hampering Sprint's progress is the fact that its backhaul was not sufficiently upgraded prior to the Network Vision rollout. "We're also upgrading every switch and turning up fiber Ethernet across the country. Some of our competitors upgraded their switches and their backhaul to Ethernet fiber before they began cell site upgrades. They didn't do everything all at once like we are," said Elliott.
One thing that would help Sprint speed up its Network Vision work is a cash infusion for capital expenditures, and that money may well be on its way. New Street Telecom analyst Jonathan Chaplin recently wrote in a research note that Japanese operator Softbank will likely increase Sprint's capex once Softbank's $20.1 billion deal to acquire 70 percent of Sprint closes. Chaplin wrote that Sprint's 2013 capital expenditures should be between $6 billion and $8 billion, far above the consensus forecast of $5.4 billion.
Some Sprint customers have complained about spotty LTE coverage in officially launched markets, leading them to wonder what criteria Sprint uses in assessing whether an LTE market is "launched." Elliott said a market is launched once it has a reasonable coverage footprint that will allow many users to experience LTE in the market, which is why smaller "micropolitan" markets are officially launching before major cities.
"Having 50 sites up in New York City is not the same from a footprint standpoint as having 50 sites up in Wichita, Kan. Thus we are able to launch some smaller markets much sooner," he said.
Elliott indicated that from a customer-perspective Sprint's LTE launches have gone smoothly, with customer care needing to handle only a minimal number of LTE-related calls.