Though Sprint’s 5G cellular network won’t go online until “the first half of 2019,” the carrier today named the first six cities that will receive “5G-ready” network upgrades in 2018, enabling select phones to enjoy “5G-like capabilities” before the official 5G launch. This April, Sprint will bring a radio technology called Massive MIMO to cell towers in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles, followed by Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C. later in 2018.
Sprint describes the 4.5G technology Massive MIMO as “a critical bridge” and “a huge step toward Sprint being first to offer a 5G mobile network.” Massive MIMO uses a large collection of transmitting and receiving antennas to transfer data simultaneously, enabling much faster data speeds than only one or two antennas can achieve.
Built by Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung, Sprint’s Massive MIMO radios contain 128 small antennas per unit, with 64 transmitting and 64 receiving. The units will start by offering 4G service, but will be “software-upgradable to 5G without additional tower climbs,” and can operate in split modes to support 4G and 5G devices simultaneously.
The good news for Sprint customers is that some Sprint phones will be able to take advantage of Massive MIMO this year. Any 4G/LTE phone with support for 2.5GHz (band 41) spectrum will see “significant increases in data speed and capacity” when connected to towers with Massive MIMO. It’s unclear what speeds Sprint expects to deliver with Massive MIMO over 4G, but a multiple of two to four times current speeds would not be unusual. Sprint says only that its new hardware offers “up to 10 times the capacity of current LTE systems,” which should help improve overall performance for customers in high-traffic locations.
Importantly, Sprint will continue to use 2.5GHz spectrum for 5G, noting that its “160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 100 markets” will give it a unique ability to offer 4G and 5G simultaneously nationwide. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem supports band 41, which will mean even faster data speeds and markedly reduced latency in next year’s 5G phones.
As the fourth-largest U.S. carrier, Sprint’s strategy for 5G differs considerably from competitors. Unlike AT&T, which has announced plans to sell 5G wireless hotspots this year, and Verizon, which intends to sell 5G home and office broadband modems this year, Sprint is holding off on selling 5G hardware until 5G smartphones are available in 2019. However, its decision to rely on already-purchased 2.5GHz spectrum for 5G — as well as adding more towers with 800MHz and 1.9GHz support — may give it a practical advantage over rivals that are still working to acquire lower and higher frequency spectrum, which is expected to deliver superior data rates.