Should Your Subscribers Build Your Network?

Sprint’s Magic Box Is Like a Shared Extension Cord for Its 4G Network

Many hands make for light work.

Sprint is in an awkward position. The US carrier has vast swathes of spectrum to build out its network, but limited towers and cell sites to exploit the assets. As much of its spectrum is at 2.5 GHz, which is less suited to wide-area coverage or penetrating walls and buildings, the carrier may need large numbers of sites to leverage its holding. Here is one interesting approach: enable your subscribers to participate in network build-out.

Last week, Sprint unveiled an indoor LTE network extender that it will provide free to select subscribers. The device, about the size of a ream of A4 paper, needs to be plugged into a power outlet and placed on a window sill. Once turned on, Magic Box self-configures, automatically connecting to the nearest Sprint cell tower, pulling in and amplifying the signal indoors and outdoors. Sprint claims that this is an efficient way to quickly densify its network without the cost of site rentals or the requirement of zoning approval. This also saves on energy costs for Sprint, a significant expense for wireless operators.

Similar to a network repeater, Sprint’s small cell enables households and businesses to get better coverage by extending the carrier’s existing 4G signals using its spectrum, without the need to invest in additional tower sites. Unlike a typical picocell or fentocell, Magic Box doesn’t require its own broadband connection, meaning that it needs some Sprint LTE coverage in the area. It also appears that there’s no mesh network capability. Sprint said that it has already begun trials in a number of US cities including Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The carrier is looking for volunteers to host the boxes and will not provide one to everyone on request. Rather, it will choose subscribers based on local need.

It’s notable that signals from a Magic Box aren’t only accessible by subscribers that maintain the device, but also by other nearby Sprint customers. In areas more densely populated, this means that one subscriber will provide LTE network coverage to neighbours and those passing by. Magic Box can provide about 100 metres of outdoor coverage.

This crowdsourced approach to building out a network is interesting, but not unique. It reminds us of Comcast’s move to create a nationwide Wi-Fi network by using a slice of its broadband customers’ routers. Comcast claims to have a Wi-Fi network of more than 16 million access points, an informal connectivity infrastructure that the carrier is using to support its Xfinity Mobile service. The approach is also reminiscent to the “inside out” networks touted by UK providers BT and TalkTalk in which customers’ routers expand mobile coverage outside the home.

These are clever ways to exploit a wide subscriber total. Sprint has more than 11.5 million postpaid accounts — its average account has 2.8 connections — and Comcast provides broadband access to about 25 million households. Using customer premises for network infrastructure is something other carriers are certainly evaluating and they will monitor the progress of efforts by Comcast and Sprint.

There’s a balance to be made here. As users become aware that they aren’t just customers but also part of the infrastructure, they may expect to be compensated by reduced service fees. Furthermore, there’s a public recognition of network weakness from service providers that request help from their subscribers. This is particularly relevant at a time when the LTE network reach of US carriers faces growing scrutiny. Time will tell if this community effort will be a successful strategy to a network build-out.