Sprint Nextel's super-fast 4G LTE network may not show up in major markets such as New York and San Francisco until as late as March, CNET has learned.
When Sprint said in September that it would launch in 100 markets "in the coming months," many customers were left scratching what exactly that meant. Internally, coming months refers to a period of three to six months, according to a person familiar with the company's roll out plans.
So the best-case scenario is a December launch, while the worst-case scenario calls for the service to be turned on in March. Given the complexities and the sheer amount of equipment and testing needed for big cities such as New York, the service could very well launch in those markets next year.
A Sprint representative disputed that the launches would go as late as March.
Still, that's a long wait for many Sprint customers who have bet on 4G LTE coming sooner, rather than later, by buying LTE-enabled smartphones such as the Evo 4G LTE and Samsung Galaxy S3 that are only able to tap into the faster network in select markets. The matter has become even more pressing recently with the release of the LTE-compatible iPhone 5. Sprint has so far hit 32 markets with its LTE network.
Higher 4G speeds represent a critical selling point for the carriers as each race to build out their network and blanket their territory with coverage. Verizon Wireless by far has the lead, having reached 417 markets last week, while AT&T has reached 77 markets.
Verizon and AT&T, of course, had a significant head start, and Sprint is desperately playing catch up with its own ambitious network upgrade plan. Under the company's Network Vision plan, which is estimated to cost $4 billion to $5 billion, the company is shutting down its iDEN-based Nextel network, moving to 4G LTE, and simultaneously improving its 3G CDMA coverage.
Sprint, however, is leaving on LTE towers that it puts up for testing, rather than shut them down again, so LTE coverage will start to appear in cities that haven't had an "official launch," which occurs when there is a critical mass of towers ready to go.
For instance, LTE coverage is starting to show up in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco. In New York, Sprint has some LTE towers up in the Bronx borough of New York, and CNET ran some tests up there.
Best Up and Download results (Near Allerton Ave. and White Plains Road) 18.72Mbps down 6.86Mbps up 31ms ping
21.74Mbps down 6.80Mbps up 37ms ping
17.04Mbps down 6.65Mbps up 36ms ping
Average= 19.16Mbps Download 6.77Mbps Upload 34.6ms ping
Poorest Download speeds (Near Barnes Ave.)
0.93Mbps down 7.16Mbps up 50ms ping
0.98Mbps down 6.36Mbps up 35ms ping
1.07Mbps down 4.63Mbps up 38ms ping
Average= 0.99Mbps Download 6.05 Upload 41ms ping
Still, having to wait this long is a lot to ask for customers have been purchased the latest phone only to ride on the slower 3G network.
To make matter worse, those premium customers who have an LTE smartphones actually get worse service than some prepaid customers who have smartphones that can tap into the 4G WiMax network, which Sprint previously supported. The prepaid arms of Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, owned by Sprint, offer WiMax smartphones that are often faster than the 3G CDMA network that phones such as the iPhone 5 are able to get.
The WiMax network is run by Clearwire, and Sprint's prior flagship phones such as the original Evo 4G ran on its network. Starting this year, however, Sprint made the conscious decision to move away from WiMax and only support 3G CDMA and 4G LTE for its smartphones.
So far, Sprint's deployment has largely focused on smaller markets, with just a handful of big cities, including Baltimore and Atlanta. But the real test of its network won't occur until it gets to heavily congested cities such as New York or San Francisco. That's unlike Verizon and AT&T, which made sure to hook up the bigger metropolitan areas in the early wave of deployment.
Here's a list of Sprint's current 4G LTE markets:
Atlanta, Ga.; Athens, Ga.; Baltimore, Md.; Barnstable-Hyannis/Mid-Cape, Mass.; Calhoun, Ga.; Carrollton, Ga.; Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Ill.; Gainesville, Ga.; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Ind.; Granbury-Hood County, Texas; Houston; Huntsville, Texas; Hutchinson, Kan.; Lawrence, Kan.; Kankakee/Bradley/Bourbonnais, Ill.; Kansas City, Mo.-Kan.; McPherson, Kan.; Manhattan/Junction City, Kan.; New Bedford/Fall River, Mass.; Newnan, Ga.; Rockford, Ill.; Rome, Ga.; San Antonio, Texas; Sedalia, Mo.; St. Joseph, Mo.-Kan.; Topeka, Kan.; Waco, Texas; Waukegan-Lake County, Ill.; Wichita, Kan.; Wichita Falls, Texas.
Joseph Kaminski contributed to this story.
Updated at 11:47 a.m. PT: to include a response from Sprint.