Sprint (NYSE: S), the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, introduced a network upgrade to deliver faster speeds in about 100 cities over the next three years and better compete against AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless.

Called “Sprint Spark,” the new network offers speeds up to 2 gigabits per second. That’s much faster than Long Term Evolution technology, which is deployed by other wireless carriers. (See graphic with this post that breaks down LTE speeds.)

Sprint has been rolling out its own version of the so-called “4G” LTE network technology across the state. It currently offers coverage in:

  • Asheville
  • Cary
  • Chapel Hill
  • Charlotte
  • Concord
  • Durham
  • Fayetteville
  • Gastonia
  • Greenville
  • Henderson
  • Raleigh
  • Salisbury
  • Statesville

However, Sprint Spark promises much more capability. 

It currently delivers speeds of up to 60 megabits per second and has the capability to surpass more than 2 gigabits per second, Sprint said. The technology, demonstrated yesterday at the company’s lab in Burlingame, California, is now available in five cities: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Tampa, Florida.

The Spark plan marks the first technology strategy announcement by Sprint since the company was purchased by SoftBank Corp. in July for $21.6 billion. Using Clearwire airwaves, also acquired by SoftBank in the deal, the plan aims to take advantage of the fact that Sprint now controls a broader swath of spectrum than its larger rivals.

New Phones Next Week

Three new phones that are compatible with the network will be available next week with a total of six coming this year, Sprint Chief Executive Officer Dan Hesse said in a press conference Wednesday.

“They are putting their spectrum advantage to good use,” said Jan Dawson, an analyst at research firm Ovum, who attended the press conference.

Sprint said it planned to deploy Sprint Spark to about 100 of America’s largest cities over the next three years. Its aim is to offer 2.5GHz coverage to geographic areas where 100 million Americans live by the end of next year.

The network’s technology is a blend of spectrum.

“Sprint Spark combines 4G FDD1-LTE at 800 Megahertz (MHz) and 1.9 Gigahertz (GHz) and TDD1-LTE at 2.5GHz spectrum, TDD-LTE technology (2.5GHz), and carrier aggregation in the 2.5GHz band,” the company explained. “These spectrum assets, technology and architecture are designed to deliver a seamless customer experience via tri-band wireless devices. Tri-band devices, named for their ability to accommodate multiple spectrum bands, support active hand-off mode between 800MHz, 1.9GHz and 2.5GHz, providing data session continuity as the device moves between spectrum bands.”

Accordingly, new phones will be able to navigate between the various bands of what Sprint calls “Network Vision.”

“Building on Network Vision’s multimode capability, Sprint Spark is designed to accommodate all of Sprint’s spectrum bands on a single device,” the company explained. “These tri-band smartphones are designed to give users the best experience by transparently shifting from one band to another, depending on such factors as location or type of application.”

Meanwhile, Sprint continues to expand its own 4G LTE service with coverage expected to reach 250 million people by mid-2014.

As part of the upgrade plan, Sprint selected Alcatel- Lucent, Samsung Electronics Co. and Nokia Solutions and Networks, or NSN, to supply and manage the buildout. NSN displaced Ericsson AB as one of Sprint’s vendor partners in the Spark phase of the upgrade, said Bill White, a spokesman at Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint.

Higher Spending

NSN is also a supplier to SoftBank, Japan’s third-biggest mobile carrier.

For Sprint, which expects to spend $8 billion this year and next on capital expenses like network upgrades, the technology push could help in the long-term evolution, or LTE, race with competitors.

“Sprint needs a way to support the broadband demands that will keep its service compelling,” said Dawson. “My worry for Sprint is that it is hard to provide the high-speed performance they have in the labs to real people at all times and conditions.”