With iPhone 4S Momentum, Sprint Tries to Catch Up with Aggressive 4G LTE Rollout

#3 Mobile Carrier hopes 4G LTE will help it catch up to Verizon and AT&T

On the heels of its addition of the Apple iPhone to its mobile phone offerings on Tuesday, Sprint didn’t waste any of its new momentum by announcing today at its Strategy Update event that it will aggressively rollout its 4G LTE mobile broadband data network by launching its 4G LTE network next year with planned coverage of 120 million by the end of 2012 and 250 million by the end of 2013. Sprint said it will also launch 15 new 4G LTE devices next year. Sprint intends to spend $10 billion to rollout its 4G LTE network  as well as phase out its iDen network it acquired in the Nextel merger and expects to see up to $10-11 billion in savings by 2017.

A distant third to the nation’s two big mobile operators AT&T and Verizon, Sprint has been losing millions of customers since 2007, which many analysts have attributed to its lack of the Apple iPhone in its offerings. Sprint remedied that on Tuesday by adding the Apple iPhone 4S & 4, which is available for pre-order today. It is rumored that Sprint committed to up to $20 billion in guaranteed iPhone orders over the next four years to secure the deal with Apple.

So next on the list of what Sprint needs to catch up is its network. While Sprint was the first to offer 4G with its 4G WiMax joint venture with Clearwire and the launch of its EVO 4G phone in early 2010, that first to market advantage did not last long as Verizon quickly launched its 4G LTE network and has quickly lapped Sprint in the number of markets covered to 164 markets covering 160 million customers versus Sprint’s 71 markets covering 120 million customers, as of October 20th. AT&T has also joined the 4G LTE race launching five initial markets earlier this month. Earlier this year, AT&T quickly re-branded their enhanced 3G HSPA+ network as 4G, as in 4G-equivalent speeds, adding confusion to the marketplace. This followed T-Mobile’s re-branding of its similar HSPA+ network as 4G late last year.

Meanwhile, Sprint’s 4G WiMax service that it has built through it’s 50-percent owned joint venture Clearwire has stalled as Clearwire’s rollout has been slow and costly and Clearwire has run into funding difficulties because of its uncertain future. This has forced Sprint to find an alternative, which it recently did by signing a deal with startup Lightsquared, which is building its own 4G LTE network with Sprint’s help. In the deal, Sprint will be able to buy wholesale spectrum and data capacity from Lightsquared and will share some of he radio spectrum frequencies it owns with Lightsquared. Sprint will also host and operate the Lightsquared network.

Sprint also said today that it will continue to support CDMA/WiMax phones through 2012 and will also offer LTE/CDMA phones and tablets starting the middle of next year. It will, however, not offer a LTE/WiMax/CDMA phone though it will offer LTE/WiMax/CDMA hotspot data devices to leverage both networks.