Sprint May Not Be Viable Option for iPhone 5 Buyers at Launch

Sprint customers may have to wait far past the supposed September 21 iPhone 5 release to buy Apple’s latest phone. Even worse, Sprint may not even be a viable option for iPhone 5 buyers since the company’s been slow to roll out its 4G LTE network.

Sprint is the only carrier to offer the iPhone 4S with unlimited data plans. Though that sounds good in theory, Sprint’s 3G network is much slower than AT&T’s HSPA+ network. In fact, the iPhone 4S downloads data at least twice as fast on AT&T’s network than Sprint’s. You can read more about our spot tests we ran last year when the iPhone 4S launched on AT&T, Verizon and Sprint simultaneously here.  In some cases, Sprint’s 3G network was too slow to use popular apps, such as Netflix and SlingPlayer, which makes the unlimited data offer kind of useless.

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Rendering of the possible iPhone 5.

The iPhone 4S is likely the last phone to rely solely on 3G technology as the time has finally come for Apple to launch its first 4G LTE iPhone. Verizon was the first to introduce a 4G LTE phone back in February of last year. Verizon has the most mature 4G LTE network, covering more than 370 cities. AT&T followed suit and now offers 4G LTE service in 60 cities. AT&T’s promised 4G LTE coverage in 55 additional cities by the end of 2012.

And where’s Sprint in 4G LTE mix? The carrier offers 4G LTE in just 19 markets, none of which are west of San Antonio. Last time we checked there are plenty of mobile customers west of Texas. Sprint’s 4G LTE network doesn’t cover much east of San Antonio either. New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago and other big city residents are not covered by Sprint 4G LTE. If you happen to live near Sprint’s headquarters in the Midwest you may be covered.

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Sprint 4G LTE Coverage is Sparse

The worst thing about Sprint’s 4G LTE network for iPhone 5 buyers is that unlike AT&T, Sprint hasn’t announced future plans to expand its 4G LTE footprint. iPhone buyers shouldn’t take the word of Sprint salespeople who say that 4G LTE is coming to their neighborhoods soon. The simple fact is that at this point nobody knows if or when Sprint will launch 4G LTE in any particular market except for Sprint employees much higher up the food chain than retail reps.

Another thing to consider is that Sprint’s own 4G LTE coverage maps are somewhat misleading. When switching to view 4G LTE coverage only, orange signifies 4G LTE coverage. Sprint just happened to color every Interstate highway orange on the map, which makes it appear that every highway in the United States is covered by the fast network. This could prove disastrous if Sprint customers buy the new iPhone assuming they’ll be covered by Sprint 4G LTE on their daily commutes. It aslo paints a false light that Sprint 4G LTE is already in their neighborhoods and just needs to expand a bit beyond the highways before they’re able to enjoy unlimited 4G LTE at work and home.

Sprint’s 4G LTE network shouldn’t be confused with its 4G WiMax network, which was the first 4G network in the United States. Sprint’s stopped selling WiMax compatible phones and the new iPhone 5 is not compatible with the older network.

According to leaked Sprint documents, the carrier appears to be scheduled to begin selling the iPhone 5 on October 15. Of course, this could be wrong, but if this is accurate, it could give Verizon and AT&T a big head start. Early adopters surely won’t want to wait almost a month past the expected September 21 iPhone 5 launch date.

The iPhone 5 launch won’t be the first time Sprint’s treated as a second-class wireless carrier. Its immature 4G LTE network is likely why it was left out of the New iPad launch earlier this summer. The New iPad (also known as the iPad 3) launched in March on AT&T’s and Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

Unless Sprint ups its 4G LTE game at a rapid pace we can’t recommend buying an iPhone 5 on the Now Network if you live outside of any of its 19 4G LTE markets. We’re hoping Sprint is slow-playing its 4G LTE plans and will unleash dozens of 4G LTE markets in time for the iPhone 5 release.