News Analysis: Sprint will renovate its integrated wireless network sites to consolidate and modernize its equipment to enable the phase-out of its iDEN Service and perhaps even WiMax.
Sprint Nextel, in an initiative it calls "Network Vision,"
will be replacing the existing wireless infrastructure it currently uses to provide
voice and 3G services, and perhaps even its 4G service, over the next three to five
Currently, Sprint uses separate cell sites for its 800MHz,
1.9GHz and 2.5GHz wireless bands. The 1.9GHz portion is Sprint's longtime
digital voice band, 800MHz is being used for 3G data, and 2.5GHz is being used
by Clearwire to provide 4G services to Sprint devices as well as to Clear's own
These services frequently use their own towers, antenna
systems and transmitter locations, adding extra expense and inconsistent
coverage. The new multimode wireless infrastructure plan would modernize the
equipment to significantly reduce its size and power requirements while adding
greater flexibility to how Sprint manages its network. This consolidation will
allow some voice service to move to the 800MHz spectrum to deliver better
coverage in some areas as well as better building penetration.
Sprint's network upgrade will also allow subsecond call
setup time, which will enable push to talk service to move to its CDMA network.
Once that transition is complete, Sprint plans to phase out its iDEN service,
which is a specialized form of GSM that came to Sprint with its acquisition of
Nextel. With the transition to its CDMA version of push to talk, probably by
the end of 2013, Sprint will be able to shut down iDEN and free up resources
for its core communications technology.
The inclusion of support for 2.5GHz in Sprint's
consolidated infrastructure does not mean that the company plans to revise its
plans to use Clearwire to support its 4G communications. The company plans to
keep its relationship with Clearwire for its 4G service, according to Sprint
Nextel spokesperson Kelly Schlageter.
However, Schlageter did say that Sprint is evaluating
whether to continue to use its current WiMax technology or to move to LTE. She
said that no determination has been made. However, Clear has been testing
Schlageter explained that the 2.5GHz support in Sprint's
consolidated cell sites will allow Clearwire to operate its 4G service from the
same locations currently serving Sprint for other communications technologies.
The multimode cell sites will also allow Sprint to provide combined push to
talk and high-speed data, for which the company said demand is already building.
While the value of push to talk and integrated
high-speed data (including video) is obvious for the core of Nextel's base,
including first responders and industrial users, the potential goes far beyond
that. According to Sprint, the company will be offering a line of ruggedized
handsets and smartphones with these capabilities.
Sprint is partnering with Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and
Samsung to implement Network Vision and its multimode infrastructure. The new
equipment will reduce the company's carbon footprint, reduce costs and improve
efficiency, according to Sprint. You can see the difference in the new
equipment versus the old equipment from these before and
after photos on the Sprint Website. The size difference is obvious, but
there's more to this than just size.
Because Sprint and Clearwire already have existing sites,
many with single-mode transmitters, the new infrastructure provides a
capability that's not addressed in Sprint's announcement. That capability is to
use existing single-mode locations to support the new multimode infrastructure.
This means that Sprint can, in many cases, substantially increase its cell
density, especially in urban areas where installing new cell sites can meet
Effectively this lets Sprint bypass the NIMBY (not in my
backyard) problem that every wireless provider faces while reducing the visual
impact because the new gear is installed in a much smaller equipment package. This
new multimode cell site hardware with its lower energy requirements and smaller
size means that Sprint can locate cells in places (such as office buildings)
where it was impractical in the past.
This is a win-win-win for Sprint. On one hand, the company
wins because it gets a new, more flexible cell infrastructure with capabilities
that weren't available before. On the other hand, it's also a win because the
company can effectively double or perhaps even triple in some areas its cell
density, which assures dramatically better coverage. And on the third hand,
it's a win because it adds new support for its 4G network while saving money
and reducing costs.
Over the next three years, Sprint stands to position
itself as a very strong contender in areas where it has appeared that business has
been passing it by. Its 4G has been the slowest of the bunch, as the company
was struggling to keep customers. This new initiative will give Sprint a leg up
in the competitive world of 4G, while also allowing it to expand its coverage
and improve its performance. According to Schlageter, these improvements will
give Sprint the freedom to boost the speed of its WiMax network (no word on
whether it'll ever reach true 4G speeds) or to move its 4G to LTE.
While Verizon Wireless and the 4G wars have grabbed the
headlines, Sprint appears to be making the right moves to build the network it
needs to meet the challenges of the future.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.