The wireless industry has on occasion become a bit like a rap battle.
T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) CEO John Legere has led that charge by making bold statements regularly and not hesitating to call out his competitors. But even when the boasting and bragging isn't antagonistic, the industry has become a sea of semi-believable claims.
Words like "top," "best," and "most reliable" are thrown around so often in commercials that they have ceased to have much meaning. In most cases the companies are not exactly lying so much as shading the truth. It's like when a broadcast network touts a show as "Tuesday Night's No. 1 New Comedy," without pointing out that the program is the only one in that category.
It has all become so meaningless that it's mostly noise until an executive makes a claim so bold he probably believes it.
What was said?
Sprint (NYSE:S) CEO Marcelo Claure is not reserved, but he's not much for boasting. That made it all the more surprising when during Re/code's annual Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calf., he told the crowd that Sprint -- which currently has one of the worst networks -- would have the best network in the United States.
"Expect in 18 to 24 months, our network will be No. 1 [or] 2," Claure said.
Had he dropped the mic and walked off the stage that probably would have been fine with the crowd, but the CEO went on to explain his remarks.
"I can tell you we're making progress, and I can tell you the area of focus will be the continued building of our network," he said. "We have a clear funding plan," Claure added, explaining that Sprint parent company SoftBank has "made a pretty strong commitment: I'm going to build a strong network."
It's a pretty bold claim
On the most commonly cited and widely respected survey of wireless network performance (produced by RootMetrics), Sprint just barely outpaced T-Mobile for third place for the second half of 2014. That's an improvement over the first half of 2014, when Sprint held the bottom spot -- and the company has clearly improved -- but it remains well behind market leaders Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T).
The RootMetrics survey praised Sprint for its progress but noted how far it has to go:
Sprint continues to trail the leaders nationally and is not yet on the same playing field as Verizon and AT&T. Sprint particularly trails in our speed index results compared to the other networks. That said, our results show that Sprint is improving at a rapid pace. At the national level, these performance gains were most clearly seen in our Call RootScore results. In the first half, Sprint finished in last place in our call results; in the second half of 2014, Sprint leapfrogged T-Mobile to finish in third place in our Call RootScore Award category. This jump in call performance, coupled with improved network reliability in general, helped Sprint also overtake T-Mobile in our Overall National RootScore results.
It's also worth noting that Sprint and T-Mobile's scores for the second half of the year were higher than the scores AT&T and Verizon posted in the first half to top the survey.
Sprint and T-Mobile also posted the biggest gains through the year, but all four companies made huge improvements from the first half of 2014 to the second. Sprint gained 17 points while T-Mobile added 12.5, compared to 12.2 for AT&T and 12.3 for Verizon.
There was positive movement all across the industry and it's getting to the point where the differences in the networks are regional. AT&T and Verizon still have the clear lead -- and at the rate every company is investing and improving it's hard to see that changing. Still, Sprint has made a big leap forward, which is commendable even if it's hard to see how the company will close the rest of the gap when its rivals are also maintaining and developing their networks.
Claure is being bold, but not silly
While Claure's statement on the surface seems preposterous, and Sprint has traditionally lagged well behind AT&T and Verizon on network quality, it has closed the gap. Sprint will find it highly challenging to pass its rivals, but it's very possible that all four companies reach a level of quality where the differences don't impact most consumers.
It's also possible that in a field in which even the independent rankings involve a number of categories Sprint will be able to claim a fractional victory. Claure is boasting here, but it calls attention to the fact that his company's once bottom-of-the-barrel network has made great strides.