Sprint Turns to Magic Box to Boost Download Speeds

Sprint is looking to make its cellular network a lot more dense. And it's turning to customers for help with boosting Sprint's LTE signals.

Sprint's Magic Box (Credit: Sprint)

(Image credit: Sprint's Magic Box (Credit: Sprint))

Sprint unveiled Magic Box today (May 3), which the carrier bills as a plug-and-play all-wireless small cell that can bolster your data download speeds. By plugging in the shoebox-sized Magic Box, Sprint customers can extend coverage by 30,000 square feet indoors. What's more, by placing the box near a window, you can extend coverage another 100 meters outdoors, boosting the signal for other Sprint subscribers.

"We had the basic idea that to bring high capacity [data] into homes, we would need to come into the homes and cover it from there," said Gunther Ottendorfer, Sprint's chief operating officer for technology.

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Ottendorfer said the Magic Box is capable of providing a 200-percent improvement in download and upload speeds — an intriguing promise if you've ever had to suffer through spotty streaming while trying to binge watch shows on Netflix. Those numbers are based on Sprint's testing in six cities where it's already deployed Magic Box and recorded improvements in download speeds.

Magic Box looks to be part of a badly needed push by Sprint to improve its network, as the carrier finds itself in fourth place behind its rivals for network performance by most measures. Our recent round of LTE speed testing placed Sprint behind rivals Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T.

The latest report from network testing firm OpenSignal found that Sprint's average download speed fell during the second half of 2016. Sprint did improve upon its 4G availability in that OpenSignal report, though, and another report by testing firm RootMetrics gives Sprint good marks for call and text performance.

Sprint certainly isn't the first carrier to turn to signal boosters to improve network performance in the home or office, but Sprint says the LTE-based Magic Box is no ordinary femtocell. For starters, Sprint is promising easy installation. You don't need to hook up the device to your internet connection; you just plug it into an electrical outlet.

Sprint also says the Magic Box takes advantage of the carrier's spectrum, using a dedicated 2.5-GHz channel provided by its macro towers. The carrier says it has 204 Mhz of spectrum in the U.S., with more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 100 U.S. markets.

That makes Magic Box different from a repeater, chief technology officer John Saw says. Because Magic Box uses a dedicated channel, it's not merely amplifying an already crowded signal. Instead, the wireless connection is coming on a clean band.

It won't cost you anything to put a Magic Box in your home or business, though Sprint plans to only distribute the device to what it's calling qualified customers. Sprint executives were mum on what exactly qualifies you to get a Magic Box, but they implied that customers with weak connections to Sprint's network would likely be prioritized. You can register for a Magic Box at Sprint's website.

You will have to live in either a suburb or city to qualify, though, as Magic Box needs to be able to connect with one of Sprint's towers to deliver its promised benefits. In other words, this won't be a way to boost cellular signals in rural areas.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.