Setting milestone dates for 5G deployments has been all the rage among U.S. wireless carriers of late, and Sprint is no exception. Team Yellow on Wednesday revealed it is aiming to deploy commercial 5G services and devices in late 2019.
In a brief statement, Sprint said it is working with its parent company SoftBank and chip giant Qualcomm to jointly develop 3GPP standards-based 5G technologies for Band 41 to utilize the carrier’s massive 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings. Sprint said additional details about its plans will be forthcoming.
The announcement comes as little surprise given that Sprint has long asserted that 2.5 GHz will be the low band coverage spectrum in a 5G world.
“In our mind 2.5 (GHz) is going to be to 5G what 800 (MHz) is to the 4G world. And so when you think about it in those terms, building a high capacity network has to start by putting as much high frequency spectrum on air as you possibly can,” Robbiati said at an investor conference in September. “In the world of 5G, you need to have high frequency spectrum … We are building a network for the future.”
What’s new about Wednesday’s announcement is that the carrier has now included a timeline for its 2.5 GHz plans, specifying that the late 2019 launch date will cover both “commercial services and devices.”
And while Qualcomm will presumably play a large role in spurring handset capabilities to meet that date, Sprint is already hard at work with infrastructure vendors to maximize its 2.5 GHz spectrum. At Mobile World Congress in February, for instance, Sprint teamed up with Nokia to demonstrate Massive MIMO on 2.5 GHz with a 64×64 antenna capable of achieving speeds “well beyond 1 Gbps.” Sprint and Nokia officials at the show explained how Sprint’s use of Time Division Duplex (TDD) rather than Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) means it can move ahead more quickly with Massive MIMO deployments since it doesn’t have to wait for handset technology to catch up.
But Sprint’s 5G plans raise the question of CapEx spending and exactly how much Sprint is planning to shell out to hit the mark in 2019. In the coming year, Sprint has indicated it expects to spend between $3.5 billion and $4 billion. On the carrier’s recent earnings call, CFO Tarek Robbiati said Sprint anticipates network CapEx spending will remain around this level for about the next three years, but noted the figure “could potentially increase if we see the right opportunity to efficiently accelerate our network plan.”
Robbiati’s comments echo those made by Sprint CTO John Saw in March. At the time, Saw said early network investments helped Sprint keep technology spending low over the past few years. But, he noted, spending will ramp again when the aforementioned Massive MIMO technology hits the stage. Once that happens, the carrier will have to shell out the big bucks for new antennas, he said.
And that could happen sooner than we think.
While Sprint’s plans are interesting in that they focus on lower band spectrum (compared to Verizon and AT&T’s focuses on 28 GHz and 39 GHz), the carrier isn’t unique in utilizing frequencies outside the millimeter wave bands. T-Mobile recently unveiled its own 5G plans, which include using all its spectrum – from 800 MHz through 28 GHz – to deploy mobile 5G services by 2020. More on the Un-carrier’s 5G commitment can be found here.