Sprint to Upgrade Network, Phase Out iDEN Service

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 years.

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 wireless devices.

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 LTE.

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 great difficulty.

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

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...