There's a quiet event happening under the surface with Sprint and its upcoming LTE deployment -- a development that bodes ill for AT&T and Verizon.
Both of the latter were "first" with LTE, as everyone knows by now. But what most people don't know is that they "cheated" -- their deployment path slammed the door on their fingers for the move into LTE-Advanced, otherwise known as "Release 10" or "LTE-10."
The problem is both spectrum and equipment. Sprint has been quietly getting ready for their LTE deployment and in each of their sites they have been rumored to have already done the engineering for LTE-10, installed the backhaul and built the antenna complex for it, leaving them only a literal "card insert" requirement to turn it on.
The other part of this deployment that is often-unmentioned is the backhaul need to feed the higher-speed network. Sprint has been building it out in a massive way, and allegedly is able to handle the backhaul demands of LTE-10 now. Without backhaul all the so-called air spectrum and resource is worthless. Sprint, of course, is one of the pioneers in the Internet backhaul and longhaul business.
Sprint also has the spectrum for LTE-10, as they have the old Nextel iDEN network which is being shut down. That's where their version of LTE-10 will go and it's in a good piece of spectrum for this use as well.
Nobody's paying attention to this at present. But you should, if you're active in this space. AT&T and Verizon will eventually get LTE-10 up of course, but they have a much nastier capital, backhaul and spectrum allocation problem to do so as they rushed to be first instead of right.
There's no guarantee that Sprint will get this right, of course, and their debt load remains a worry. But by 2013 you should start to see the difference as the Sprint LTE network will get lit beginning this summer into the fall, and as 2013 progresses and moves forward Sprint should be the one with the 4G advantage -- in a big way.
Sometimes being first, when you take shortcuts, proves to not be a good move.
Disclosure: The author has a speculative position in Sprint.