Sprint Coverage Primer
While most people who have used a cell phone for any length of time likely know what roaming is, there may be some confusion as to how roaming works within the Sprint network. I will be pointing out a few basics and providing a little information that may not be apparent. I will not be going into LTE, CDMA versus GSM, data coverage, International roaming, or other issues not relevant to Republic Wireless.
When talking about the Sprint network, you have to realize that when you are roaming can vary based on the company you are getting your cellular service through. Although you are using the Sprint network, your cell provider can be another company such as Republic Wireless. How roaming is defined is based on the agreements between Republic Wireless and Sprint along with how the service and phone is configured.
The first thing that we need to understand is “home” and “roaming”. While it looks pretty clear cut on the Sprint coverage maps, there are a few things that are not apparent. What Sprint defines as the “home network” does not necessarily only include Sprint towers. So I will use the following terms to define the 3 types of coverage.
- Sprint Native Network – These are the towers owned and operated by Sprint in their Nationwide Sprint Network. If you use Virgin Wireless or MetroPSC (Extended Home Area) coverage maps, this is the service area they provide at no additional cost.
- Sprint Home Network – If you look at the Sprint coverage map and compare it to the Virgin Wireless or MetroPSC, you will notice that is covers more area without even considering roaming. The home network includes both the Sprint Native Network and towers owned and operated by other providers, but the phone recognizes them as part of the home network. The license agreement Sprint has with the owner of the towers gives them to freedom to have considerable usage without additional financial consideration. In some cases Sprint may just be leasing the towers from the owners.
- Off-network roaming – Using another carriers CDMA network such as Verizon Wireless.
It needs to be pointed out that the Sprint Coverage maps can be flat out wrong. Besides the difference between the Sprint Native Network and Sprint Home Network, there are constant changes in licensing agreements that are often not reflected within the coverage maps. It may take time before the coverage maps are updated to show the changes.
So why exactly is the type of network important? In a word: Cost. Sprint has to pay the other carriers (i.e. Verizon) for the calls that go through their network. Roaming costs are the most expensive of the 3 types of cell coverage mentioned. Towers that are within the Sprint Home Network but not a part of the Sprint Native Network are less expensive than roaming, but incur more cost than the Sprint Native Network. Since the Sprint Native Network is the least expensive, they license it for use by other cell service providers such as Virgin Wireless or MetroPSC. Virgin Wireless only allows you to use the Sprint Native Network while MetroPSC considers the Sprint Native Network to be their “Extended Home Network” that you may use without additional charge. The portions of the Sprint Home Network outside of the Sprint Native Network are treated by MetroPCS to be “TravelTalk” (roaming) and currently incur a charge of 19 cents per minute. Cell service providers (including Sprint) have a limit within the contract as to how much roaming you may do per month.
How does this apply to Republic Wireless? If Sprint is incurring a cost for calls on the cellular network, they will pass that cost to Republic Wireless who must in turn pass it on to the customers. Both Virgin Wireless and MetroPCS are considered to be some of the lowest cost cellular providers out there. But both either limit you from roaming outside of the Sprint Native Network (Virgin Mobile) or charge you extra (MetroPCS) for roaming outside of it. If Republic Wireless continues to provide coverage of the Sprint Home Network, then that is a big step up in coverage from the competition. If they continue to provide full Sprint off-network roaming as they are now, then that is an unprecedented offer especially considering the cost of the Republic Wireless service. Not only will the cost of the service be less ($314 less than the Virgin Mobile 300 minute plan, $344 for MetroPCS unlimited plan over 2 years), but you have a HUGE amount of coverage comparatively. To put this in perspective, compare these 2 images:
Provided from http://www.virginmobileusa.com/check-ce ... e-coverage
Provided from http://coverage.sprintpcs.com/IMPACT.jsp
So not only is the amount of Wifi offload from cell a consideration in the Republic Wireless long term viability, there is the cost of providing roaming outside of the major markets where Sprint has native coverage.
Part 2 –
Sprint service in a non-Sprint area
Now that you (hopefully) know a bit more about roaming on Sprint, it is time to mention one facet of Republic Wireless that can greatly affect rural customers. Although the Sprint coverage map shows that I am in Sprint home network, if I go to the Sprint website and attempt to order a phone I am informed,
We're sorry; we haven't gotten to your neighborhood yet. Thank you for your interest in Sprint. We are constantly improving our network and may have coverage in your area in the future. Please check back with us or enter another ZIP code to continue shopping for another location.
I contacted a local Sprint authorized reseller about 20 miles north of here. They inform me that coverage is available in this area. As I stated before, Sprint does not want to incur additional charges outside of the Sprint native network. Here at my home I am within the Sprint home network but not within the Sprint native network, so Sprint does not want to sell me service based on my home location.
Since Republic Wireless is expecting customers to offload a large portion of their calling to Wi-Fi, they can offer service in areas where Sprint chooses not to sell service. At least in my case this is a good idea as I expect to offload 90% (or more) of my calls to Wi-Fi. To clarify, Republic Wireless set me up on cellular service with a local number using the Sprint network in a location where Sprint does not sell cellular service themselves. Score another one for Republic Wireless!
Part 3 –
How to tell what cellular provider owns the tower your phone is currently using (determine your SID)
While this may not be important to a lot of users, I have seen many posts on the forums to the effect of “I’m roaming on X wireless and Y doesn’t work”. X is usually Verizon Wireless and Y can be any portion of the cellular service (calling, receiving calls, data, and texting). When I first reported an issue to Republic Wireless support, I said the same thing about roaming on Verizon. Only after digging much deeper into the issue on my own did I discover that I was not connected to Verizon even though my phone indicated roaming. I will not go into the details of my investigation of the issue since there is still an open case pending. But I thought some Republic Wireless members might be interested in how to see whose tower you are using at any given time. Since you may show being on the home network (not roaming) and yet still not be on the Sprint native network, it could be of value to members. If you notice that certain areas have slower data, it might be because you are not on the Sprint native network after all.
- Open up your phone dialer and enter *#*#4636#*#* to enter the phone testing menu.
- Tap ‘Phone information’ and locate the SID value under “Location”. For example, mine is 10d3.
- Note the value and press the back button 3 times.
- From there, we need to convert the SID from hexadecimal to decimal. You can use an online converter (such as http://easycalculation.com/hex-converter.php ) or the ‘programmer view’ of the Windows Calculator. Mine converts to 4307 decimal.
- To find the carrier that owns the tower, locate your decimal SID value at ifast (the authoritative source for SID values): http://ifast.org/files/NationalSID.htm#24 Using my example, 4307 is assigned to “SI Wireless (Tennessee)”.
I had never heard of SI Wireless before. But a little online research provided me their home page (http://www.siwirelessco.com/) and this quote from it:
SI Wireless is focused on developing rural parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee with 3G CDMA technology.
In my case, my Republic Wireless phone is not roaming on Verizon Wireless after all. So as you can see, it is clearly possible that you may not be on the cellular network you think you are using.
Part 4 –
Roaming indicator, PRL (Preferred Roaming List), and how it applies.
In addition to Republic Wireless, I also have cellular service through Verizon Wireless. I did the same lookup of the cell tower on that phone using the identical steps from Part 3 and it showed I was using (of course) “Verizon Wireless (Nashville-Davidson, TN; Clarksville-Hopkinsville, TN/KY; Tennessee 9 - Maury; Tennessee 1 - Lake; Tennessee 3 - Macon; Tennessee 6 - Giles; Tennessee 5 - Fayette; Tennessee 2 - Cannon)”. So exactly how does the cell phone know which of the local CDMA cell towers to use?
Buried within the cell phone is the PRL (Preferred Roaming List). Remember how I mentioned earlier that the cost incurred by your carrier is based on who owns the tower? The PRL specifies which towers are allowed/preferred so that carriers can control their costs. The PRL contains listings for each allowed SID and the features available on the network. This is how the phone knows if it should be on a 3G or 1x data connection, if it is on the home network or roaming, and which of the local towers to use.
Since the PRL helps a cell company control the costs that their customers incur while using their phone, it is important that they keep them up to date. From the user standpoint, it is also necessary in order to keep up with the changes to the towers you can and cannot use.
So far, we have discussed cell networks, roaming, SID, and PRL. Now what?
Part of the point was to share information with the other Republic Wireless members. I also wanted to illustrate that there are financial considerations to how we use our cell time. Not only does offloading from Wifi to cell cost Republic Wireless money, the type of cell connection will have a direct impact too.
I hope that Republic Wireless can continue to offer full off-network roaming to its customer base at the current price point or somewhere near it. No other provider in the cell industry comes close to offering the value of the Republic Wireless service given the cost and the massive amount of roaming coverage. There are some concerns like unlimited cell use and a high potential for abuse on roaming. These could have a negative impact on the costs (raising the price to the consumer) of Republic Wireless in the future.
Since the other lower cost cellular providers (or even Sprint) do not offer coverage here, without Republic Wireless I would be stuck with a more expensive provider such as Verizon Wireless or AT&T. It is my hope that Republic Wireless will continue to be a low cost leader with the wide coverage area we now enjoy.