Sprint Spark Hands-on: 1 Gbps Speeds, Four 4K Video Streams at Once

Sprint is still playing catch-up in the 4G wars, but today it demonstrated a path that could help it leapfrog the competition. Its new Spark service combines is capable of delivering 50 Mbps peak speeds to new smartphones like the Galaxy Mega. At its lab near Silicon Valley, Sprint also showed us what's possible once it aggregates 60 MHz of spectrum, including delivering 1 Gbps of throughput to deliver four simultaneous streams of 4K video.

Lets start with what's happening in the five Spark launch cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa and Miami. So-called tri-band phones that tap into Sprint's 800 MHz, 1.9-GHz and 2.5 GHz bands (the latter acquired from Clearwire), will deliver top speeds of 50 to 60 Mbps and an average of at least 15 Mbps down.

In Sprint's lab, a Samsung Galaxy Mega was hitting more than 50 Mbps down on Speedtest and more than 15 Mbps up. Users will see a Spark logo in the upper right-hand corner of phones that support the service, in addition to an LTE logo, when they're in coverage. Sprint considers a city launched when it covers at least 25 percent of the market. Other phones will include the Galaxy S4 Mini, LG G2 and HTC One. There are six devices coming in total, and we suspect the Nexus 5 could be on the list.

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How is Sprint doing this? On the cell site side, the carrier is using 8 transmit, 8 receive technology (8T8R) for better coverage--a first for North America. Today, the carrier uses a 2T2R backbone. In addition, Sprint is using MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) on its devices with 4 receivers and 2 transmitters to get more bits through the same amount of air. 

Most important, Sprint Spark uses carrier aggregation to give the carrier roughly twice the speeds it was getting before with regular LTE. According to Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, it's the difference between a Z28 and any old Camaro. In other words, Spark is all about performance.

With aggregation, Sprint will be combining two 20 MHz channels for 40 MHz in total by the middle of next year. And by the end of 2015 things will get really interesting, with Sprint using a total of 60 MHz of spectrum (20 x 3). That's when you'll see up to 1 Gbps of throughput. And that's exactly what Sprint demoed in its lab.

Partner Samsung showed what you could do with this kind of data rate by streaming four simultaneous 4K video streams (using two RG antennas) to four TVs with a speed meter right in the middle. Sure enough, the setup was hitting 1,025 Mbps or more than 1 Gbps.

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Even today Spark is capable of some pretty impressive feats. We also saw a Transformers online multiplayer game running with zero latency via a Zing tri-band hotspot. We also got one to take with us to test Spark's data rates in NYC.

With this kind of sizzling performance, Sprint Spark could very well replace traditional DSL and cable connections within a few years, and CEO Hesse reiterated that the carrier will continue to offer unlimited data for life. Given that we've already seen 50 Mbps speeds in New York from Verizon's upcoming AWS upgrade, the competition isn't exactly standing still. But we're glad to see Sprint stepping things up in a big way. 


Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.