LTE in 19 Cities. Nationwide by 2013.
With the largest mobile broadband data allowances, average LTE speeds close to 20 Mbps, an ever expanding list of cities with LTE coverage and a triple band mobile hotspot, Sprint is looking to shake things up since last year’s review.
With multiple changes on the table, a lot is happening for the “Now Network”. As always, this review will be split into 4 detailed sections:
- Sprint 4G Plans
- Sprint 4G Speed
- Sprint 4G Coverage
- Sprint 4G Broadband Cards & Mobile Hotspots
Let’s get right to it.
Sprint 3G & 4G Plans
Home To The Largest Data Plan.
Since our last review of Sprint 4G plans, they’ve expanded and simplified their data plan offerings but killed 4G unlimited mobile broadband. Now you’ll be looking at mobile broadband plans ranging from 1 GB up to 12 GB.
At a glance, you’ll notice that a 5 GB 3G only plan is actually more expensive than a 3G/4G that comes with 6 GB.
For starters, it’s a carrot and the stick method to get users onto the newer networks that saves them money. Also, by purchasing a new device you’ll be signing a new contract for 2 more years of guaranteed income.
Given that Sprint LTE speeds have a theoretical maximum of 25 Mbps vs. their 3G’s 3.1 Mbps, that’s an upgrade that’s worth just about anyone’s time.
So what happens if you decide to make the jump to 4G plans?
You’ll be looking at 3 GB, 6 GB and 12 GB for $35, $50, & $80 respectively. Which 4G plan you end up getting will largely depend on how much data you need.
Besides ending unlimited mobile broadband for all devices except smartphones, Sprint has also hiked their overage fees from $0.05/MB to $0.25/MB. That’s a 500% increase.
To help put that in context, previously Sprint overages ran $51.20/GB. Now they’re $256/GB.
Worried about overages and not sure which plan to get? Check out “How Much is 5 GB & Is It Enough?” to find the right plan at the right price and avoid making an extra car payment for mobile broadband.
That’s doesn’t exactly jive well with how they like to market their smartphones:
The word of the day brought to you by Sprint is:
Sprint 4G Speed
Advertised Vs. Tested 4G LTE & WiMAX Speeds
This chart shows the upper limits of each range for download speeds.
Since last year, Sprint has launched their LTE network with average speeds of 6-8 Mbps downloading, 2-3 Mbps uploading with download peak speeds up to 25 Mbps. That’s fast enough to rival decent DSL and cable internet connections.
By contrast, WiMAX speeds average 3-6 Mbps downloading, 1 Mbps uploading with bursts up to 10 Mbps.
As Sprint 4G LTE is limited to 15 markets at the time of this writing and WiMAX coverage in 82 markets, there’s a great chance you’ll be bumped down to 3G speeds and if in fringe areas, possibly 1xRTT.
Here’s how they all stack up:
What Kind Of 3G & 4G WiMAX Speeds Will You Actually Get?
In contrast with last year’s review, Sprint 3G and 4G WiMAX speeds were found to be sub-par by both PCWorld in their speed tests across 13 cities and PCMag in their speed tests across 30 cities:
“Sprint’s 3G and 4G services performed worse than any other carrier’s in our study.
Sprint 3G clocked average speeds of 0.59 mbps (590 kbps) for downloads and 0.56 mbps (560 kbps) for uploads–adequate speeds for basic mobile tasks such as browsing the Web (slowly) and checking email, but problematic for streaming video or music.
There isn’t much good news about Sprint’s existing 4G WiMax service either.
We tested Sprint WiMax last year in seven of the cities included in this year’s study. In those seven cities, the service’s average speeds improved from 1.99 mbps for downloads and 0.61 mbps for uploads to 2.66 mbps for downloads and 0.92 mbps for uploads. But Sprint’s 4G service is about as fast as AT&T’s HSPA+ service, and quite a bit slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 21 service. Most people consider both of these forms of HSPA+ to be 3G.”
- PCWorld | April, 2012
We chose our 30 test cities so they were evenly spread across our six regions, and so we could drive to all of them in three weeks. We also chose so as many of them as possible had the maximum number of 4G networks. We tested 12 of MetroPCS’s 14 LTE cities, 20 of AT&T’s 39 LTE markets, 23 of Sprint’s 70 WiMAX markets, and 30 of Verizon’s 258 4G LTE markets.Sprint National Average 3G speeds: 0.41 mbps downloading, 0.29 mbps uploadingSprint National Average 4G speeds: 3.50 mbps downloading, 0.91 mbps uploading
- PCMag | May, 2012
Here’s what both sets of data look like side by side:
But What About Sprint 4G LTE Speeds?
Sidenote: bear with me as I’ll have to do some heavier quoting than may be in good taste. It’s quite critical to make one distinction specifically important to mobile broadband users.
To Sprint’s credit, their LTE network was not yet available for testing at the time of the aforementioned PCWorld & PCMag speed tests. However, determined to not miss a chance for free publicity, Sprint made their LTE network available for testing to PCMag in Atlanta prior to their official launch date [emphasis mine]:
We got average download speeds between 9 and 13Mbps, which is similar to the speeds in AT&T’s two faster 5MHz channel cities but slower than you see in its 10MHz channel cities. Sprint’s peak download speeds hit 26.5Mbps down, which is as much bandwidth as anyone really needs. That’s also similar to AT&T’s peak speed in a solid 5Mhz city like Raleigh, where we got a 27.8Mbps peak on AT&T.
Sprint’s download speeds were comparable to speeds on Verizon, which uses 10MHz channels.
Uploads were on the slow side, but here’s where the test method [I’ll touch on this shortly] really becomes an issue. Using our Sensorly test we saw upload speeds averaging 2.19Mbps, once again comparable to AT&T’s 5MHz cities and faster than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ or Sprint’s old WiMAX 4G, but slower than Verizon. The network hit 2.97Mbps for peak uploads.
But I’m pretty sure both Sprint and AT&T are tuning their networks to respond better to multiple simultaneous upload streams, because when Ookla tested four streams at once, we saw 7.4Mbps up on Sprint. AT&T has shown a similar difference in upload speeds when tested with the Ookla software in the past.
- PCMag | June, 2008
Earlier in the article, PCMag mentions this:
The two speed tests we use return very different results; it’s just the way they were designed.
Ookla’s test tends to give faster numbers because it eliminates some slower results and runs multiple transfers simultaneously. Sensorly’s test runs one stream at a time and don’t eliminate any results.
We consider the Sensorly test more realistic because smartphones usually queue large data transfers rather than running them in parallel; Web pages do consist of multiple small transfers in parallel, but time-to-first-byte plays a larger role there than peak speeds.
- PCMag [ibid]
While the Sensorly tests may be more realistic for smartphones, MBR readers typically use mobile broadband through broadband cards and mobile hotspots. As such, our habits mimic that of a desktop/laptop user rather than smartphones. Taking that into account, both the Sensorly ‘serial’ 4G download speeds and Ookla’s ‘parallel’ 4G download speed test data will be viable as we do both.
That being said, here’s what PCMag’s data looks like (re-graphed for better visibility).
- On PCMag’s original graph, Sprint LTE speeds were marked at about 19 Mbps as opposed to the 26.5 Mbps as mentiond within the article. I’ve made the correction in plotting this graph as the upper limit of all other download/upload speeds were plotted as reported.
As duly noted by the PCMag team, comparing Sprint LTE speeds to their 3G and 4G WiMAX speeds isn’t truly fair:
For our Fastest Mobile Networks project, we tested ordinary retail phones on loaded networks, and we didn’t tell the carriers where we were going in advance. For this Sprint test, we used phones tuned by Sprint’s engineering team at pre-approved locations. They knew we were coming.
- PCMag [ibid]
Sprint 3G, 4G WiMAX & 4G LTE Tested Speeds | Side-By-Side Comparison
The graph above isn’t a completely fair comparison as it pools Sprint speed test data from different devices at different locations at different times. Take this comparison with a heaping tablespoon of salt when compounded with the fact that I’ve averaged 3G & 4G WiMAX data from two sources for simplicity and the 4G LTE data was taken on an unloaded network in only one location from just one source.
As impressive as 26.5 Mbps peak downloading on an LTE network (even if unloaded), it won’t mean a thing if you don’t have 4G coverage. That being said, let’s dig into just that.
Sprint 4G Coverage
LTE 19. WiMAX 82. Nationwide LTE by 2013.
True to their word last year, Sprint launched their 4G LTE network in 15 markets (July, 2012) only to announce an additional 4 cities shortly after.
With plans to upgrade their entire EVDO and WiMAX network to LTE by the end of 2013, they’ll be rolling out LTE cities as soon as they’re ready to go:
By the end of 2013, Sprint expects to have largely completed the build out of its all-new 4G LTE nationwide network – with an enhanced 3G network – covering 250 million people across the United States.
To compare existing and future network upgrades for all carriers and not just Sprint, check out How To Find Out Which Cell Tower Serves Your Neighborhood.
Sprint LTE Cities
July 15, 2012
Fort Worth, Texas
Granbury-Hood County, Texas
San Antonio, Texas
Kansas City, Mo.-Kan.
St. Joseph, Mo.
September 3, 2012
Manhattan/Junction City, Kansas
Sprint 3G & 4G Devices
5 Mobile Hotspots, 3 Broadband Cards
Since last year, Sprint has a 4G LTE “Tri-Fi” mobile hotspot that connects to LTE, WiMAX and their 3G network alongside some new goodies as well as old faithfuls.
I’ll cover Sprint’s 3G and 4G devices before wrapping up with why you can ignore all but 2 devices. First up, Sprint Mobile Hotspots.
Sprint Mobile Hotspots
The obvious choice here is Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot.
It’s the only 4G mobile hotspot that’ll connect you to 3G, 4G WiMAX and 4G LTE where ever available. While it’s not the smallest or lightest of the bunch, it’s standby time is 8 weeks. Naturally, the more devices you have connected to it will result in a lower battery life.
Sprint Broadband Cards
There aren’t any particularly glaring distinctions between Sprint’s broadband card lineup. No device is 4G LTE capable nor do any come with expandable storage. As standard with Sprint, they all sport GPS Navigation. While the Merlin CC208 hybrid ExpressCard/PC Card has technically 2 form factors, there is no linux support.
This is basically a draw that comes down to your preferred form factor: USB or ExpressCard/PC Card. Given that ExpressCards/PC Cards have mostly gone the way of the dinosaurs, you’ll probably want to opt in the USB direction.
If you’re in the market for a mobile hotspot, the Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot is the obvious choice.
Being the only device to connect to Sprint’s 3G, 4G WiMAX and 4G LTE network, this is what you’ll want to get if you’re into future proofing.
If you’re in the market for a broadband card, the device of choice is between the plug-in-connect USB or the 250U by Sierra Wireless. Both have identical features and only differ substantially on design aesthetics.
However, I’d recommend to go for the Tri-Fi over either of these devices since Sprint will be focusing on expanding their 4G LTE network and not their 4G WiMAX network.
The 4G LTE Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot is available for $40 at the time of this writing.
So Does Sprint Mobile Broadband Make The Cut?
Whether Sprint makes the cut has just as much to do with broadband cards as it does 3G/4G plans, speed and coverage. Here’s a brief recap:
Sprint Mobile Broadband Plans
With the largest data allowances available, Sprint’s plans range from 1 GB all the way up to 12 GB. Unfortunately, overage charges can run you $256/GB. That’s higher than any other major carrier.
Sprint 3G & 4G Speed
While Sprint’s 3G and 4G WiMAX speeds have been lagging behind the competition, their recently launched LTE network has average 4G speeds close to 20 Mbps. While the tests were done on an unloaded network, those kinds of speeds put them back in the game.
Sprint 3G / 4G Coverage
Sprint has staggered at 82 WiMAX cities for some 2 years. Fortunately, their LTE coverage is growing rapidly. Already at 19 cities, they’re planning to be nationwide by 2013. Though Verizon will still probably have the largest 4G LTE network at that time, Sprint won’t be far behind.
Sprint Broadband Cards & Personal Hotspots
With 1 LTE mobile hotspot and four 4G WiMAX hotspots alongside 3 broadband cards, Sprint has made the choice here an easy one. The 4G LTE Tri-Fi comes from the trusted guys at Sierra Wireless who’ve been in the mobile broadband game since it’s inception.
Chances are, it’s a pretty solid device.
Got Sprint or thinking about it? Let us know in the comments!
Not Sure About Sprint?
Check out our Postpaid Mobile Broadband Comparison