Sprint's Super-Fast Spark Now in 5 Cities, Phones Coming Nov. 8

Sprint Spark, a faster version of 4G, can hand off LTE between three spectrum bands. Samsung, HTC and LG will deliver tri-band phones in Nov.

Meet Sprint Spark, a technology with the potential to "surpass wireless speeds of any U.S. network provider," Sprint announced in an Oct. 30 statement.

Sprint, in recent quarters, has become something of an underdog, if not simply under-loved, a suggestion its most recent churn numbers back; the carrier lost 360,000 postpaid customers during its 2013 third quarter, it shared Oct. 30. Its plan to change this—helped by its recent purchase of Clearwire and influx of cash from its merger with Softbank—can be summed up in a word: "speed."

T-Mobile (which before John Legere and his "un-carrier moves," no doubt outdid Sprint in being unloved by consumers) may be scrappy, and Verizon Wireless may have a gigantic Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, but Sprint plans to offer a network faster than anything consumers have experienced to date.

At its lab near Silicon Valley, it demonstrated over-the-air speeds of 1G bps—the highlight of a day showcasing what's possible on the new Sprint network, it said in the statement.

"Sprint Spark is a combination of advanced capabilities, like 1x, 2x and 3x carrier aggregation for speed, 8T8R [eight transmitters, eight receivers] for coverage, MIMO for capacity, TDD [Time Division Duplexing] for spectral efficiency, together with the most advanced devices offering both tri-band capability and high-definition voice for the best possible customer experience," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said in the statement.

More plainly, Spark is able to achieve great speeds by doing three things: working with 4G LTE technologies on three bands of wireless spectrum, the 800MHz, 1.9GHz and 2.5GHz bands; using special 2.5GHz radio heads created by Alcatel-Lucent, Samsung, and Nokia Solutions and Networks; and taking advantage of Sprint's spectrum holdings (which, while considerable, haven't always been ideal for its purposes).

This combination of technologies and techniques can be taken advantage of by "tri-band" devices—smartphones and other devices that can instantly hand off the signal between the three spectrum bands, depending on which offers the best reception at the moment and the kind of activity the user is performing. The result, said Sprint, is a "flawless data experience."

The first markets now receiving limited availability of Spark are Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami and Tampa, Fla. By the end of 2014, Sprint expects 100 million Americans to have Sprint Spark, or 2.5GHz, coverage.

"In a Sprint Spark coverage area, you can stream your favorite TV shows or movies in brilliant 1080p," according to Sprint. "You can play lag-free online games against opponents during your commute. You can share your view from Brooklyn, N.Y., with a loved one on the other side of the world."

The first tri-band devices with Sprint Spark will arrive in early November from HTC, Samsung and LG; the first two will arrive Nov. 8.

The same day, several devices will receive over-the-air upgrades, making them Sprint Spark-enabled. These include the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Mini, the Samsung Galaxy Mega, the LG G2 and the HTC One Max.

What do Spark speeds look like in real-use cases?

According to Sprint, downloading a 60-minute HD television show would take 7 hours on 3G and 35 minutes on 4G, but will take 2.5 minutes on Sprint Spark. A 60-minute podcast downloads in 10 minutes over 3G, 52 seconds over 4G and 7 seconds over Spark. And a 20MB game would take 4 minutes over 3G, 21 seconds over 4G and 3 seconds over Spark.

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