Credit: Sprint

Sprint on Wednesday touted a new “Magic Box” solution that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said will help the carrier achieve number one or number two LTE network performance in most markets by the end of next year. But what is the box, and – more importantly – can it actually live up to its name to work magic for Sprint?

What is the “Magic Box”?

As described by Sprint, the Magic Box is “the world’s first all-wireless small cell,” designed for placement in customer homes and offices. The device is manufactured by Airspan.

Though some immediately dismissed the Magic Box as nothing more than a “glorified in-home signal booster” reminiscent of Sprint’s Airave offering, CTO John Saw explained the device includes some very significant differences.

First, Saw noted that the Airave booster supported older CDMA and 3G technology, where the Magic Box provides 4G LTE coverage through the use of 2.5 GHz spectrum. Also, where Airave offered smaller footprint, in-home coverage improvements only, Magic Box covers an average of 30,000 square feet indoors and extends another 100 meters of coverage outdoors.

Saw said there are also technical differences in how Magic Box operates compared to a repeater. Where the latter amplifies everything – or “garbage in, garbage out,” as Saw put it – the Magic Box generates new, clear access channels using dedicated chunks of 2.5 GHz spectrum, with separate backhaul from a donor site. The Magic Box also has “advanced radio edge intelligence” to mitigate interference with itself and other signals around it, Saw said.

Where repeaters degrade the efficiency of the network by taking capacity away from one part of the network and delivering it somewhere else, Saw indicated the Magic Box actually improves network efficiency by generating a new signal.

“The macro sites around where the Magic Box is can deliver more data at faster speeds to the Sprint customers than without the Magic Box,” Saw commented.

Additionally, unlike other existing small cell solutions, the Magic Box comes without the need for wired backhaul. It uses an LTE-Advanced technology called LTE User Equipment Relay to provide a wireless backhaul connection to the macro network.

The Magic Box will work with all Sprint phones that have 2.5 GHz capabilities, which Saw said is around 80 percent of Sprint’s base. More than 200 million people are currently covered by Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum, the execs said.

Where can the magic box be used?

As mentioned previously, Magic Box is meant for use in customer homes and businesses, and is designed to be placed near a window to provide both indoor and outdoor coverage. Installation is supposed to be a snap – just plug in to a regular power outlet and play.

So far, Sprint execs said the Magic Box has been tested mainly in urban centers – including in locations across New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and Indianapolis. Sprint COO Guenther Ottendorfer said more than 5,000 boxes have been deployed for these trials, and noted customer response in those locations has been quite good. Saw said testing in residential areas has also begun.

Though Saw said Sprint is “optimistic” that the Magic Box could serve rural areas as well – technically, everything should work as long as there’s a donor site nearby to connect to – he indicated the carrier’s primary focus for Magic Box deployments is in urban and suburban areas.

Saw and Ottendorfer said Sprint plans to give the boxes to “qualified” customers for free. Sprint representatives clarified that the qualification criteria is based on need (will it improve service?) and location (does that area have access to wireless backhaul?).

While signal boosters and small cells were traditionally deployed as reactive tools in areas of poor service, Saw said he believes Sprint will be more proactive with Magic box deployments. In particular, Ottendorfer said, the Magic Box can help increase coverage in areas are on the edge of Sprint’s network.

The carrier has already started making the boxes available to business customers, and more will be shipped out as they come in stock. Availability for consumer customers will follow, Sprint reps said.

What does this all mean for Sprint?

During Wednesday’s earnings call, Son indicated Magic Box represents another way for Sprint to significantly improve its network performance without wasting CapEx dollars. In a blog post, Saw indicated the device delivers an average increase of 200 percent in download and upload speeds. And Son said Magic Box’s impact should be felt soon – over the next 18 to 20 months – with the carrier being able to achieve top or near top of the pack LTE performance in most markets by the end of next year.

But the deployment of network equipment in customer homes and offices raises questions about network consistency and quality control – what if, for instance, a customer with Magic Box goes on vacation and decides to unplug while they’re away?

Saw said it’s unlikely customer behavior related to the Magic Box will be much different from engagement with, say a WiFi router – generally plugged in and left alone. But managing a dynamic network is a challenge Sprint is ready to face, he said.

“We are moving into an era, basically, of a virtual ad hoc network in addition to supplement what I call a more traditional macro base, you know, outdoor small cell on a light post network,” Saw reflected. “With the Magic Box, it is dynamic, it is ad hoc, it is self-configurable … and with enough customers in a neighborhood to turn up their Magic Boxes, I think we can provide ample coverage. But we have to be prepared for the ad hoc nature of it.”

“That’s what’s going to make the Sprint network very interesting,” he added. “We’re now getting our customers to actually help us build strong coverage in the neighborhoods where they live.”