Why 4G is Sprint's iPhone

Back in January, before CES, I couldn’t help but notice a ginormous Sprint ad in the Las Vegas airport that read “The First 4G Network.” “That’s nice,” I said to myself. “But what can you do with it?”

Well, this week at CTIA Wireless 2010, the No. 3 wireless carrier finally provided a good answer—several, actually—when it introduced the HTC Evo 4G. This Android handset truly is state of the art, boasting a large 4.3-inch display and HD video recording, but Sprint impressed me most by successfully demonstrating why you would want 4G. In fact, even though competitors are hot on its heels, this technology and how well it’s executed will be as important to Sprint as the iPhone is to AT&T.

This is how I know Sprint now gets the importance of its key asset. During the Evo 4G’s launch event, Sprint demonstrated a new YouTube HQ app on the phone that put the Motorola Droid to shame when streaming the same video. I also thought it was a clever idea to demo the Evo 4G’s mobile hotspot capability by playing a high-def video clip when connected to a Roku set-top box. In fact, up to eight devices can tap into the device’s high-speed data at once, three more than the Sprint Overdrive. And because Sprint recognizes that user-generated content will be just as important in the 4G era, it wisely decided to bundle the Evo 4G with the Qik app for recording and sharing live video.

Will all of these apps work in areas without 4G coverage? Yes, but not nearly as well, which is why the pressure is on Sprint and partner its Clearwire to blanket as much of the country as possible in Mobile WiMAX before this blockbuster phone arrives in the summer. Sprint 4G is currently available in 27 markets and counting, covering 30 million people in the U.S.; it will reach 120 million people by the end of the year. Between now and then it will be critical for the two companies to light up such areas as New York City and San Francisco, both of which are on the road map.

And covering more people is just part of it. Sprint will need to ensure that the hand-offs between EV-DO Rev A and Mobile WiMax are seamless so that customers get the most out of such products as the Evo 4G. One wireless insider told me this week that some of the early products have had trouble automatically switching back to 4G mode after dropping down to 3G. Another challenge for Sprint will be maximizing battery life. Sprint, HTC, and those making apps for the Evo 4G will need to collaborate to optimize the hardware and software so you’re not hunting for an outlet by lunchtime.

The other carriers aren’t sitting still, either. Verizon Wireless says it’s on track to deliver its own 4G network, LTE technology, to 25 to 30 markets this year covering 100 million people. LTE also promises faster speeds than Sprint’s 4G network: 5 to 12 Mbps versus 3 to 6 Mbps. Clearwire announced this week that it would boost its speeds by 20 to 30 percent this year, and it will need to do that to help Sprint remain competitive. However, Verizon Wireless won’t deliver a 4G handset until the first half of next year, giving Sprint a significant first-mover advantage.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is forging ahead with its high-speed HSPA+ network, promising to cover 100 metro areas with “4G-like” speeds this year. The first handsets with this technology will arrive by the end of the 2010. AT&T is furthest behind in the next-gen mobile broadband race thus far, but it will be rolling out HSPA+ to certain locations on its way toward deploying LTE.

So while the competition is certainly fierce, come this summer Sprint will have the 4G phone spotlight all to itself. And if everything the carrier showed off at CTIA works as well in the real world, its 4G story may prove compelling enough for Sprint to not only stop bleeding subscribers, but to also attract a host of new ones from its rivals—including the one that will carry the next iPhone.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

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.