TC2's David Rohde on Telecom

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Sprint finally makes it to the LTE starting line

By Posted July 16, 2012

Sprint’s LTE network is finally on! Well, probably not where you or the bulk of your employees are. But an announcement today that Sprint’s 4G LTE has launched in 15 markets at least gets Sprint into the LTE game.

With carriers now rapidly turning over their lineup of available smartphones, and Verizon Wireless threatening to make LTE a “must-have” in end-users’ minds, Sprint’s move is a necessary first step, if just barely.

I’d check out the official Sprint announcement only if you have a well-honed sense of humor. One of the “spinniest” telecom press releases in years, Sprint goes to desperate lengths to avoid saying that this is Sprint’s LTE debut, with awkward locutions about its LTE launch “extending” or “spreading” to various areas, as if there were some previous LTE launch that we missed.

Of course there was a previous 4G launch by Sprint, but that was the now largely abandoned WiMax network with Clearwire. Trying too hard once again, Sprint’s publicists cover that with the assurance that Sprint was “the first national wireless carrier to introduce 4G service in 2008.” Too bad that introduces the question of whether enterprises can buy a service that’s been around for four years, and if not, why it’s worth mentioning.

A more reliable source for the Sprint news may be the Associated Press story on Sprint’s LTE launch, which unfortunately for Sprint asserts that its network may not have quite the speed of Verizon’s and AT&T’s. The AP also says that Baltimore is missing from the list of initial 4G markets that Sprint had initially promised (while Sprint’s press release implies that an addition of Waco, Texas to the initial launch list was a heroic feat).

Also check out a report from Network World’s Bob Brown, which notes Sprint’s own heavy promotion of 4G devices such as the HTC EVO 4G LTE. At least that gives Sprint motivation to start pushing out those LTE markets rapidly. Its limitation, as has been the case for years, is a mix of issues around capital resources and credibility. Enterprises usually need geographic critical mass to sign on to a network service, and increasingly difficult choices around end-user devices and BYOD have to be informed by full network rollouts, not dribs and drabs.

Sprint is a critical U.S. carrier – the FCC basically said as much in denying AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile USA. Over time, however, Sprint has eroded its enterprise position with successive abandonments (either in new bids or in actual network support) of POTS long distance voice, frame relay, and now the original Nextel network. Each move on its own was understandable, but taken together the company has managed to risk its “share of mind” in the large user marketplace. That means that LTE is basically make-or-break for Sprint, at least in its current incarnation as an independent entity.

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