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Sprint CEO talks unlimited data, LTE, SoftBank and Dish Network

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Sprint Chief Executive Daniel Hesse was in Irvine last week to pick up two J.D. Power awards given to the Kansas-based carrier and Boost Mobile, one of its prepaid brands.

The awards, given for rating the highest for customer purchase experience, come at a time of enormous change for the wireless carrier. Sprint is currently in the process of purchasing spectrum from U.S. Cellular, buying Clearwire and being in the middle of a takeover bid by both Japan's SoftBank and Dish Network.

All the while, Sprint is in the process of rolling out its LTE network and shutting down its Nextel network. And Sprint's rivals are also undergoing change. AT&T and Verizon have both switched to shared-data plans while T-Mobile says it has ditched service contracts.

Hesse, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times during his brief visit to Southern California, said Sprint has no plans to get rid of its unlimited data plans.

"From a price-point perspective, we still are, we believe, the value leader," he said. "We don't have any plans now to get rid of unlimited. We think that what customers really crave is simplicity. ... We want to eliminate all the pain points, and customers really do like that." 

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Hesse recalled how when he launched the Internet division at AT&T back in the mid-1990s, it had the industry's first unlimited Web access, an unheard of move at a time when Internet usage was charged by the minute.

"That was considered radical, but we got so many customers who came to it, it changed the dynamic of the industry," Hesse said.

Asked how Sprint would catch up to Verizon and AT&T in adding high-speed LTE connection, Hesse said Sprint has LTE coverage in 88 markets and plans to be able to serve as many as 200 million people by the end of 2013.

[For the Record, 9:25 a.m. PDT April 30: An earlier version of this post said Sprint hopes to have LTE service in 88 markets by the end of the year. Sprint already has LTE in 88 markets.]

"Verizon, to their credit, has the largest national LTE footprint and AT&T is behind them; we're closing the gap very quickly," he said. "T-Mobile is still way behind on 4G, true 4G, which is LTE."

Hesse said some customers may experience LTE in their areas before Sprint officially launches the network there.

"When we're building out a market, as soon as we put the stuff on a cell site, we'll go ahead and activate it," he said. "I came to San Diego and Los Angeles a couple of months ago, and I had great LTE coverage in L.A. even though we hadn't launched the market yet."

As for some customer complaints that Sprint doesn't have the best call quality, Hesse said the company's rollout of LTE and investment to improve the network should solve that issue.

"That's what this huge investment in network vision is all about, that actually was just launched in Los Angeles. It provides not only really fast 4G LTE but much better 3G service," he said.

Hesse said the network will also improve after Sprint shuts off its Nextel network at the end of this quarter and integrates the spectrum into its main network.

"We've been gradually moving customers off the Nextel network and one of the reasons for that is the spectrum that the Nextel service runs on is really, really good spectrum," he said. "This network vision investment, which is a massive investment, our goal is to have without question the best wireless network in America. Without question. We believe we will get there."

In the meanwhile, outside forces have kept Hesse busy as well. Currently, Sprint has an agreement to be bought by SoftBank for more than $20 billion, but a new offer from Dish Network for $25 billion might change those plans.

As far as Hesse is involved, he said he and his employees can only worry about running the company and let the company's board of directors figure out which is the best offer.

"Our job is to just focus on the business day in and day out, and work to make sure we get all the necessary approvals to close three transactions that are pending approvals. We're buying more spectrum from a company called U.S. Cellular, we're buying Clearwire and then there's the SoftBank investment into Sprint," he said. "We're working to get all three of those finished and closed by the first of July. We have a special committee of the board that in parallel will evaluate the Dish proposal."

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