On March 8 (2017), Sprint became the first U.S. mobile carrier to officially test the Gigabit LTE service along with partners Qualcomm and Motorola at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The Gigabit LTE service demo launched on its commercial LTE Plus network. The Sprint Gigabit LTE service currently utilizes three channel carrier aggregation (CA), 4x4 MIMO, and 256 QAM. As Sprint continues to trial and roll out its Gigabit LTE service, it also plans to deploy massive MIMOs to further gain coverage and capacity benefits of the technology. A key element of this launch was the forthcoming Motorola Snapdragon 835-based LTE Cat 16 smartphone. Although there are no Gigabit LTE smartphones commercially available currently, there are a few smartphones on the horizon that were recently announced. ZTE and Sony announced Snapdragon 835-based phones at MWC 2017 for launch later this year, and over the course of 2017, we can expect to hear more vendors making a similar announcement. By conducting an official test on a live network with an upcoming Gigabit LTE ready smartphone, Sprint became the first carrier to do so. The Gigabit LTE demo specifically comprised of three Motorola smartphones streaming 4K video simultaneously. Analysts could live test speeds on the demo Gigabit LTE smartphones while its LTE Plus network carried its regular commercial traffic. This was impressive, especially at the Smoothie King Center during a live game when it would be reasonable to expect short-form video data traffic along with other multimedia data traffic. During one test, Motorola smartphones clocked 180.11 Mbps, 192.89 Mbps, and 209.26 Mbps—much higher data rates than what is normally experienced in commercial 4G networks. Although Gigabit speeds may not be achievable in real-life conditions, these tests illustrate that the availability of Gigabit technology increases user data rates significantly.
To give credit where credit is due, Sprint’s Gigabit LTE launch is substantial for the operator. Since launching Sprint Spark in 2014, the operator employed several technologies to improve its network performance end-to-end in different phases over the past 4 years, including launching Sprint LTE Plus in 2015. However, it struggled to affect meaningful subscriber growth. With the finalization of 3GPP Release 13 specification, operators globally accepted LTE Advanced Pro trials albeit in different configurations to gain big leaps in their network data rates and capacities. Gigabit LTE is critical for operators to improve the speeds and capacities of the network as they look to compete in an unlimited services market. Gigabit LTE also offers operators opportunities to test 5G technologies, such as massive MIMO, as early as possible in the evolution to 5G. So, over the next few years as Telco’s try to create a balancing act between advancing current network technologies and testing new ones, Sprint could substantially gain some of those lost subscribers and more with its early demo of Gigabit LTE and the potential rollout of the service.