Sprint has a new message to lure potential subscribers to its wireless network: We're a lot better than you think we are. And it's turning to a familiar face to drive that point home.
The wireless carrier has tapped Paul Marcarelli as a spokesman to tout its improved cellular network. If that name doesn't ring a bell, the face sure will: Marcarelli was the ubiquitous "Can You Hear Me Now?" Guy featured in Verizon's ad campaign for the better part of a decade. In the Sprint ad, Marcarelli says he's switched over from Verizon because Sprint's network is nearly as reliable as those of Verizon and AT&T while also offering lower monthly rates thanks to the carrier's ongoing Cut Your Bill in Half promotion.
Specifically, Sprint says that its network reliability surpasses T-Mobile's, while falling within 1 percent of ratings for AT&T and Verizon. The carrier bases that claim on its analysis of Nielsen drive test results for voice and data reliability in 106 markets.
It's true that Sprint has invested heavily in upgrading its network in recent years, as it tries to compete with the other three major carriers. "They are spending money and time rebuilding and strengthening," said cable TV and wireless analyst Jeff Kagan. "The Sprint network of today is so good, it's winning many different awards. However, the customer still looks at Sprint in the rear view mirror."
Still, Sprint has a ways to go, said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis. "There are a lot of ways to measure network performance, and I think we've seen them all with these dueling carrier ads," he said. In Greengart's self-described "non-scientific" experience using carriers recently, he feels that Sprint still doesn't match what other carriers offer.
"I've found [Sprint's] network varies more widely than others," Greengart said. "At a particular street corner, Sprint has full LTE bandwidth and speeds are competitive, but for three blocks around it, it bounces between slower LTE and 3G. That seems a lot more than a 1 percent difference."
Other third-party testing hasn't looked favorably on Sprint. RootMetrics' most recent report placed the carrier third behind AT&T and Verizon for overall performance and reliability and last in network speed and data performance; Sprint did finish second in RootMetrics' rankings of call performance. In OpenSignal's State of Mobile Networks report, Sprint finished fourth among carriers for network coverage.
Our own carrier testing indicates that Sprint has a lot of work to do to close the gap with the other major carriers. Our speed testing in six cities found that Sprint's speeds lag well behind those of T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. In our overall carrier rankings, which also take cell phone plans and customer service into consideration, Sprint finished fourth.
Still, whether you agree with Sprint's contention that it's closing the gap on its rivals, the people we talked to believe that the carrier has come up with an effective ad campaign. "Sprint is not claiming it is better, just that it is good enough, and much, much cheaper," said Greengart, adding that he liked the ads. "Using the 'Can You Hear Me Now' Guy to promote switching is clever — Verizon should have kept Paul Marcarelli on retainer just to prevent this sort of competitive ploy."
"This may turn out to be the marketing hit of 2016," Kagan agreed. "We'll just have to wait and see how this develops, but the potential is there."
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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.