Can Sprint’s network handle the iPhone?

Updated: The big story around today’s iPhone launch is the phone, but Sprint’s $20 billion bet on the iPhone and its plans for growth in a consolidating wireless industry make a compelling backstory for telecom industry watchers. And for those folks, plus anyone who’s currently on the Sprint network hoping for the device, the biggest question is whether Sprint’s network can handle the phone.

After AT&T’s publicized issues with the device, Sprint has to be hoping its network doesn’t become a secondary story, and analysts believe it will be okay. Although the Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the latest iPhone won’t run on Sprint’s current WiMAX or planned LTE network, it will run on its CDMA network, which is the technology Verizon’s iPhone  currently uses.

However, it’s unclear how long the operator could offer its unlimited plans to iPhone data users. In a conversation on stage at our Mobilize event in September, Sprint’s CTO Stephen Bye said Sprint will have to continue reducing its costs in order to keep offering unlimited plans.

However, just like Verizon, Sprint is in much better shape to handle the iPhone than AT&T was when it launched the handset back in 2007, said Chetan Sharma, a wireless consultant. He added that Sprint has been handling Android data on unlimited plans for some time without issue. He pointed out that the bandwidth and signaling loads for Android devices are similar or even greater than the new iPhone’s are expected to be, so he’s confident the network won’t become the story.

Update: Michael W. Thelander, founder and CEO of Signals Research Group, which is a consulting firm that field tests wireless networks, says Sprint has the benefits associated with using CDMA technology (it’s called EVDO for those who love their acronyms), but he’s a bit concerned about Sprint’s spectrum depth. He emailed me the following:

My only caution on Sprint is that they will be using their 1900MHz spectrum, which inherently has poorer RF coverage than 850MHz. In the early days of the iPhone, AT&T ran into problems because it was only using its 1900MHz band for 3G and they had coverage problems. They have since deployed 3G at 850/1900MHz in many markets and the coverage problems are not nearly as great. Likewise, VZW has at least some EV-DO deployed at 850MHz, although from what I know in my testing and conversations with others, is that the bulk of their EV-DO/data traffic is at 1900MHz. Sprint has no choice but to use 1900MHz so they had better hope their coverage is adequate. If they have designed their network for ubiquitous voice coverage then at the cell edge the data performance may be sub-par.

So while it’s disappointing that Sprint doesn’t appear to be offering an iPhone with faster WiMAX or LTE speeds, there are about 6-7 million Verizon iPhone subscribers who seem to be happy. So perhaps Sprint’s commitment signaled by buying 30.5 million handsets makes sense, both for consumers and for Sprint.