Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is Sprint No-Longer the Laughing Stock of the Wireless Industry?

     For many years Sprint has been the whipping boy of the wireless industry, specifically when it comes to the quality of their data network. Sprint was the first carrier in the USA to launch a 4G service in WiMax. Sure, it was faster than their 3G service but that's like saying that I can run faster on crutches than just with a walking boot on my leg. The decision to go down the WiMax path set Sprint behind the competition when it came to launching a true 4G LTE solution. As time went on Sprint's network got worse and worse and customers, including myself, left in droves.
     Since those times Sprint has made a lot of changes. They've launched many network initiatives and even launched Dan Hesse from his position as CEO of the company. With an influx of cash from new owner Softbank and a more spectrum holdings than the competition could Sprint really make a comeback?

A brief history
    Sprint wasn't always a nationwide wireless carrier. They got their start when the Government broke up monopoly in the landline phone business and companies had to compete for customers, Sprint becoming one of the larger providers of Long Distance. In 1997 Sprint PCS launched with a different approach to wireless than what traditional "cellular" companies were doing. Sprint, along with competitor PrimeCo in my area, did away with the concept of a contract, gave you more minutes, eliminated activation fees and, unlike "Cellular" phones they were "Digital" promising far better security and sound quality.

     Over the years Sprint continued to expand and push new technologies. Sprint launched their "Sprint Vision" 3G services which provided real, usable internet connectivity right on your device. They then increased their bandwidth several times, making the connection better and faster. In an effort to grow they bought other wireless carriers, first starting at the regional level but eventually they gobbled up competitor Nextel. This was one of the first stumbling blocks for Sprint as Nextel used a very different iDen network which had 0-compatibility with Sprint's CDMA services. From this point on Sprint struggled to maintain 2 vastly different networks, botching both of them. Then came the WiMax debacle which put the company behind the 8-ball. a majority of Sprint customers never saw WiMax in their area, myself included. In the meantime Verizon embraced LTE, AT&T and T-Mobile first moved to HSPA+ which was a more natural progression from their existing EDGE and 3G services before also moving into the LTE arena. The last to the party was Sprint and it hurt them. Badly.

    For myself I began as a Sprint Customer in 1998, the week after Ari Lyendyke won the Indy 500 in the Sprint PCS-sponsored car. I stayed with Sprint, for the most part, until 2011. I loved my unlimited data package, the fact that I could buy a new phone at any time, there were no activation fees and the service worked. In 2005 all this started to change for me. My service began to suffer as I relocated to a more rural area. My data connection started being more inconsistent. I couldn't upgrade my devices as often and I was now being forced into contracts and had to pay device activation fees. But still I stuck with Sprint because they supported my device, a Palm Pre. But then Palm users felt the pangs as the Pre+, Pre2, Veer and Pre3 never came to Sprint, instead being sold through Verizon and AT&T. Even my plan which was cheap started to climb. Much like Anakin Skywalker Sprint had become the very thing they sought to bring an end to. I eventually moved my service to US Cellular who, ironically, sold their spectrum holdings in my region to Sprint. Forced to change carriers I moved to AT&T which is what I use today. However all is not happy with AT&T which is why I did what I thought I'd never do again. I gave Sprint another shot.

The Switch
    Data is a huge concern for me and AT&T in my area is really spotty. I can't even use my phone in one of the main restaurants that we frequent for work lunches as AT&T just doesn't work. I had also bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 when I moved to AT&T and, while a great device, the AT&T version has been borked since launch. Don't believe me? Search for Note 3 AT&T issues and see the pages of stories. Go ahead, I'll wait. As such I wanted a new device and the Samsung Galaxy S6 was going to be it. Now I could have gotten it on AT&T on a Next plan however I didn't want to see my bill go up by $32 a month. Sprint had gotten my attention with their "Cut your bill in 1/2" offers and, before the cost of devices, Sprint was going to match my unlimited talk, text and 15GB of data with tethering for 3 lines for under $65 a month. My thought was if Sprint was at-least equal to AT&T I'd be ahead because my bill would be considerably less, even when you factor in the cost of 3 new phones. With this in-mind I went into the local store and signed up for 3-lines of service through Sprint to test out for 14-days.

RoXolid Testing
     As I stated I wanted a Galaxy S6 so that's exactly what I went with. My wife has a Galaxy S5 but was intrigued by the S6 so she went with one as-well. Finally my daughter had been using a Moto E and I wanted a lower-cost device for her. I found what I thought was a good match in the HTC One E8. Because I wasn't sure if I was going to keep the service or not the rep set us up on 3 $80/mo Unlimited Talk/Text/Data plans with temporary numbers. This way we didn't have to turn-in our phones or port our numbers, two items that would greatly complicate things if we didn't keep Sprint service.

     Testing took place in and around the east-Central Illinois area, within a 30-mile radius of Champaign, IL. This is listed on Sprint's Coverage area as featuring their Spark service which every store rep called "LTE on Steroids". I think this must be something handed down from corporate because every-single employee I spoke with used this same analogy. I also drove from Champaign to Chicago and up to my home stomping grounds of Milwaukee, Wi. We tested all three phones inside and out, in rural and suburban areas and in just about every environment you can imagine.

     From the word-go I really liked some of the new features Sprint had added to their services. Unlike AT&T and Verizon Sprint enables WiFi calling on all their smartphones. This means if you have WiFi at-home you'll never need a microcell. Ever. Call quality, which was never an issue even back in the day on Sprint, was the best I have ever used on a cell phone thanks to their HD-calling. It was eerie how clear talking between the three phones was, and we didn't need to be on WiFi to see the benefits. The calls were crisp, clear and understandable. This had to be too good to be true. And unfortunately that ended up being the case.

     One of the reasons I spent so much time talking about the Data side of Sprint's network is because it is still, unfortunately, the company's achilles heel unless you're in Chicago, New York, LA or any other top-10 market. Don't get me wrong, when Sprint Spark works it's exactly as promised. In areas of Champaign where I'd struggle to get any service I was consistently pulling down speedtests of 50-60mbps, often with only 1-2 bars of service. When I drove from Champaign to Milwaukee we streamed Pandora the entire 4-hour trip and it worked perfectly the entire time. No stuttering, no buffering, no drops. None. When I use AT&T to listen to baseball games using the MLB At Bat app there are stretches where I can go 3-to 10-minutes with buffering and stuttering issues. The Sprint service rocks at streaming audio.

     So with all of this positive I must have made the switch, right? Well hang on there because all was not rainbows and unicorns. My wife's Galaxy S6 would not refresh her Facebook feed from the app unless it was connected to WiFi. She could do it from the web browser but not the official app. Oh, Samsung also decided to bake Facebook into the TouchWiz ROM meaning you can never properly delete the app and reinstall it from the Google Play store; you can simply uninstall all the updates and reinstall them. This problem was never resolved on her phone, however I rarely had an issue on my S6. The one time I did I was in Gibson City, IL at the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In theater. I was streaming a baseball game via the MLB app perfectly before a movie and could not access anything else data-wise from my phone. Facebook, Twitter, the Chrome Browser, everything timed out. I disconnected the audio stream and it still didn't work, however I was able to reconnect to the audio feed without a hiccup. I don't know if this means that the Sprint network prioritizes streaming audio data packets differently and at a higher priority to standard data but that is the only explanation I could come up with.

    The next set of issues occurred when the three of us attended a Milwaukee Brewers game at Miller Park. AT&T works decently in the "bowl" of the stadium but I couldn't get my S6 to work at all anywhere. This was especially frustrating because the phone showed 3 bars of signal and the Spark icon was active. Thankfully I was able to connect to the new WiFi service the team had added since last season so at least I could use the WiFi calling if we got separated. My Wife and Daughter had similar experiences at the park but not to the same extent.

     The final straw came from the network's inconsistent performance. Our phones would bounce from Spark to 3G to LTE and back again without changing position. I realize that the more people ping a tower the less capacity it will have but the connections shouldn't be this volatile. It was really annoying to see happen but it didn't seem to affect things such as streaming audio that I have already covered. Facebook, Twitter, news sites and general browsing would go from super-fast to what I would call the Sprint of Old.

RoXolid Wrap
     In the end we didn't stick with Sprint and wound up returning the phones. We really wanted this to work as the cheaper bill was appealing, the call quality was immeasurably better and the service was faster. We could not reconcile this with the fact that the Facebook app did not work at all on my wife's phone, I had no service connection inside Miller Park and the connection was very inconsistent. However I will say I was extremely impressed with how far Sprint had come since I had left them on October 2nd, 2011. Spark is for real and it's growing. Sprint has piqued my interest again and, as long as they keep promotions like the "Cut Your Bill In 1/2" and continue to expand I will be willing to give them another look in 6-months. They have more spectrum holdings than any other wireless provider which means they have a position of strength.

     In the meantime I have swapped out my Note 3 for a Galaxy S6 on AT&T. It's still a great device but features such as WiFi calling are no-where to be found due to AT&T's gimping of the device and lack of support for the service. My service issues still exist even on the new phone however the GPS is leaps and bounds better than the Note 3. Perhaps I'll give Sprint another look sooner than later.

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