Sprint Nextel briefed investors Friday concerning the carrier's aggressive plans to begin operating a new high-speed wireless LTE network in selected markets across the United States beginning in mid-2012. The supporting architecture is designed to accommodate all the traffic from the carrier's 3G, 4G and Direct Connect customers on new multimode base stations being built by partners Samsung, Alcatel Lucent and Ericsson.
“We have a single network architecture that we are taking advantage of to deliver all [wireless] capabilities to our customers on a single, flexible platform,” said Sprint Senior Vice President Bob Azzi.
The hardware consolidation effort is expected to enable Sprint to dramatically reduce the number of cell sites it requires nationwide from more than 60,000 right now. “Work on 22,000 cell sites is currently under way [and] the balance will be started in the next few months,” Azzi said.
The switch to multimode base stations is also expected to reduce power consumption costs as well as significantly cut the carrier's greenhouse gas emissions, Sprint said.
There are two key attributes of Sprint's next generation Network Vision platform, said Steve Elfman, president of network operations and wholesale at Sprint.
One is “having a multimode network platform that enables multiple technologies and spectrum to be deployed on a common platform at a lower cost structure,” Elfman said. The other is having “an integrated device chipset that enables devices to function on multi-spectrum bands and multimode technologies.”
Sprint has been working with Qualcomm and other partners to ensure that CDMA-LTE devices are available by the middle of next year. Approximately 15 Sprint devices are expected to hit the market throughout 2012, including handsets, tablets and data cards.
What's more, Sprint now envisions a far more rapid LTE deployment scenario than when the carrier initially introduced Network Vision in the fourth quarter of last year. “We are building as we are speaking and we expect to be largely complete by the end of 2013,” Elfman said.
By then Sprint projects that its LTE network will be within range of 250 million people. Overall, however, the carrier has a very aggressive rollout schedule to maintain, said Gartner Research Vice President Phillip Redman.
“Adding the integration to CDMA will be complex,” Redman said in an email Friday. “I would anticipate delays.”
Though Sprint is poised to launch Apple's iPhone and will continue to offer unlimited data plans, the carrier believes its new multimode network architecture and base stations will be able to keep pace with the voracious mobile data growth ahead.
“We believe we can handle the demand [to come from] the announcement this week of the iPhone,” Elfman said.
Redman said Sprint has a tremendous amount of spectrum but would have to harvest it from WiMAX support. “It appears that support is winding down, so that is a possibility,” he said.
Sprint said it remained committed to supporting its customers on WiMAX and will be continuing to sell WiMAX devices through 2012. When Sprint's new LTE network launches, however, the carrier's new priorities will be to first use the spectrum it already owns at 1900 MHz and 800 MHz, and then add hosted 1600 MHz spectrum once the FCC approves LightSquared's pending license application, Elfman said.
“We have a wholesale agreement with Clearwire for WiMax at this point in time, and that's where we'll go next,” Elfman said.
Clearwire noted that it is uniquely positioned to offer capacity to Sprint and other carriers — particularly in urban areas where demand is high and their 4G spectrum will be inadequate.
“Even with their reallocation of existing spectrum, it's obvious that their spectrum resources are insufficient to meet the long-term demands of mobile data,” Clearwire said in a statement Friday. “But this is not unique to Sprint.”