wireless towerA new mobile broadband experience took place in New Orleans yesterday, with the unveiling of Sprint Gigabit LTE, the company reports. The new service, which is seen as an evolutionary step towards 5G, delivers much faster mobile broadband, with some caveats.

Sprint and its technology partners, Qualcomm and Motorola, say this is the first commercial deployment of Gigabit Class LTE in the U.S. Sprint is using their 2.5 MHz spectrum for the service, of which they have very deep holdings – over 204 MHz, 160 of which are concentrated in the top 100 U.S. markets.

“Only Sprint has enough licensed spectrum to deliver this level of capacity and performance in major markets across the country,” said Dr. John Saw, Sprint CTO in a press release. “Our high-band 2.5 GHz TDD LTE spectrum is uniquely suited for Gigabit Class LTE, and we fully intend to maximize our deep spectrum holdings to provide customers with more immersive and connected mobile experiences.”

Sprint Gigabit LTE
Sprint is using some emerging wireless technology for the deployment, including three-channel carrier aggregation, 4X4 MIMO and 256-QAM modulation to achieve this higher capacity. Sprint uses the term Gigabit LTE, which is an emerging industry term, but is very careful not to promise gigabit type speeds in the press release announcing the service.

Speeds will increase significantly, with a noticeable difference for end subscribers, but at scale, Sprint will not be delivering a gigabit to every handset. At the New Orleans demo, a Wireless Week representative says they experienced 612 Mbps.  And that’s a tightly controlled demo. But considering Akamai just reported that the average U.S. mobile broadband speed is just 7.9 Mbps, the experience will be dramatically different.

Additionally, handsets will be a problem for a while, because there are hardly any on the market that are compatible with this technology. At the New Orleans demo yesterday, Sprint, Qualcomm, and Motorola highlighted a “forthcoming” smartphone from Motorola that is compatible with the service. It will feature Qualcomm’s Snapdragon™ 835 mobile platform with an integrated Snapdragon X16 LTE modem. Many more are on the way, but it will take some time for handset availability to catch up to this technology.

Instead of citing actual speeds, the press release discusses the experiences this Sprint Gigabit LTE service will enable. “With Gigabit Class performance, Sprint customers may experience the latest generation of connectivity experiences, such as immersive 360-degree video and virtual reality, connected cloud computing, rich entertainment, and instant apps on the Sprint LTE Plus network,” as an example.

The new Category 16 service will power the existing Sprint LTE Plus network, which is concentrated in high-traffic locations across the company’s network. It will require some upgrades to this existing network, including migrating to four carrier aggregation, from the current three carrier.

Sprint says their next evolution after this Gigabit LTE project will take them even closer to 5G. They plan to utilize massive MIMO for their 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings, which they claim will push their bandwidth capabilities into the 3 -6 Gbps range.