Sprint Hopes Android Plus 4G Equals Subscriber Wins

Sprint said today that it will carry the latest Android phone, the Samsung Epic. Beleaguered Sprint (s s) has been taking a dual-pronged approach to stemming the flood of subscribers lost over the past few years by betting heavily on Android and its WiMAX fourth-generation wireless network. But can the launch of more 4G Android handsets in the next few months win it enough subscribers before Verizon’s Droid line-up gets access to the coming Verizon 4G network?

Sprint has jumped firmly on the Android (s goog) train, starting with the HTC Hero smartphone last year and more recently, the EVO 4G. The EVO 4G quickly became the darling of the Android world given its impressive hardware specs and the ability to tap into Sprint’s other weapon — the WiMAX network. The EVO sold out at Sprint stores throughout the U.S. as soon as it was available, but the carrier is not content to rest on that success.

The Epic 4G is Samsung’s latest member of the Galaxy S product line, and the first Samsung phone to gain WiMAX capability. It’s a 4-inch Android phone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and should go head-to-head with Verizon’s (s vz) Droid line of Android phones. Sprint is pushing its 4G network with both the EVO and the Epic, as Verizon’s nex- generation network is not yet up and running for consumers — and won’t have handsets until next year at the earliest. However, the advantage Sprint enjoys having an active 4G network will not last long, as Verizon has concluded technical trials of its upcoming LTE network and will be expanding it to test markets shortly.

If it seems Sprint is pushing 4G Android phones a bit desperately, it’s with good reason. The company has not shared the number of subscribers gained with the EVO 4G launch, but given the strong sales numbers the phone is already a good performer. Sprint attributes some of that success to the availability of 4G, and expects that to continue with the Samsung Epic 4G. Verizon has indicated its LTE network will be coming online this year, covering 100 million people, so Sprint knows its advantage is short-lived even though it has a healthy head start. Sprint’s 4G network (powered by Clearwire) already reaches 44 million potential subscribers, with 120 million by the end of this year.

It will realistically be well into next year before Verizon can reach enough subscribers to make a serious run at Sprint’s 4G, but that doesn’t give Sprint a very big window of opportunity. The gap is narrowing, and will close altogether far too quickly. Sprint better get as many subscribers as possible tied down to data contracts over the next few months, to counter the coming Verizon Droid army.

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