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Sprint Needs Phone Makers’ Help to Extend Network Reach

Inside a Sprint Corp. Location Ahead Of Earnings FiguresInside a Sprint Corp. Location Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Customers shop at a Sprint Corp. store inside the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, Illinois on July 22, 2016. Christopher Dilts — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sprint unveiled a new technique to improve the performance of its service on Tuesday, one the company claims will allow the 2.5 GHz band signal it uses to travel up to 30% father. The technique relies on a new wireless industry standard adopted this month called High Performance User Equipment, or HPUE.

“HPUE will help us take our spectrum asset to an entirely new level,” John Saw, Sprint’s chief technology officer, crowed in a blog post announcing the rollout. “With HPUE, our customers gain the best of both worlds, allowing our 2.5 GHz spectrum to maintain all of the speed and capacity advantages of high-band, while gaining the coverage advantages of mid-band spectrum on HPUE capable devices,” he added.

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By some measures, Sprint (S) has more airwave spectrum than any other carrier. But it’s generally seen as having only the third or fourth best network. In one study this summer by Rootmetrics, the carrier came in third place overall.

In theory, owning the most spectrum could allow for having the least crowded network with the capacity to reach the highest speeds. But there are multiple reasons why Sprint’s airwave advantage hasn’t translated into the top network quality, ranging from the nature of the spectrum bands it owns to the amounts spent on deploying transmitters on cell towers.

One challenge is that the bulk of Sprint’s spectrum licenses are in the 2.5 GHz band, acquired as part of the $14 billion purchase of Clearwire in 2013. That band is good for high speed connectivity, but also doesn’t travel as far or penetrate obstructions as well as lower spectrum bands. As a result, Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum, which it relies on for delivering the fastest 4G LTE speeds, covers only 200 million people in the United States. Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T) and T-Mobile (TMUS) claim greater coverage for high speed LTE, using lower bandwidths that travel farther.

Sprint has sought to combat the limitation in several ways, including deploying a greater number of low-cost, smaller transmitters and adding a range of technological features to improve connectivity between the transmitters and customers’ phones.

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But the success of HPUE, as signaled by the “user equipment” portion of the standard’s name, will depend on Sprint customers getting compatible phones that manufacturers like Apple and Samsung. Leading mobile chip makers Qualcomm (QCOM) and Mediatek will support HPUE, as will many phone makers in the first half of 2017, Sprint said on Tuesday. An upcoming flagship phone from Samsung next year will support the standard, as will phones from some others including ZTE, LG and HTC. Apple, which accounts for just under half of all smartphones in the U.S., was conspicuously absent from the list.

“Multiple other parties” will be supporting the standard, said Ryan Sullivan, Sprint vice president of device development said, according to a report by Wireless Week. But Sullivan didn’t give a time table for those other parties, and didn’t specify if Apple (AAPL) was included, according to the report.

For Sprint customers looking for high speed connections farther from home, there’s going to at least some delay until the newer, compatible phones hit the market. And for those who are fans of the iPhone, the wait could be even longer.