Sprint: Decision on LTE likely in four to six months

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BARCELONA, Spain--Over the next four to six months Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) will study the rate at which its customers migrate from EV-DO to mobile WiMAX and evaluate the best way to use its existing spectrum before it decides whether or not to deploy LTE.

During a roundtable discussion with the media, Sprint Senior Vice President of Networks Bob Azzi along with representatives from Alcatel-Lucent (NASDAQ:ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Samsung provided a some additional details on Network Vision, the $4 billion to $5 billion network modernization project that Sprint is undertaking over the next three to five years.

Sprint currently runs an EV-DO network in the 1900 MHz PCS band, has a wholesale deal with Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) to use WiMAX in the 2.5 GHz band and owns an iDEN network in the 800 MHz band. Sprint has said it will begin phasing out the iDEN network in 2013.

The heart of the project is the deployment of new multi-mode base station, which Sprint said will give it greater technology flexibility. Like many operators Azzi said Sprint's customer base is migrating to smartphones, and this trend is causing the company to look for ways to reduce its network costs. The new multi-mode base stations will be smaller allowing the entire footprint of the cell site to be reduced, which means that less power will be required at the cell site.

The upgrade also includes the deployment of CDMA 1x Advanced, which Azzi said will reduce the per-minute costs and provide an estimated 20 percent to 40 percent improvement in capacity and performance.

The project includes upgrade in backhaul technology with Sprint moving away from T1s and toward a combination of microwave and Ethernet fiber, where it's available. "T1 is no longer preferred choice for backhaul," Azzi added.

Regarding iDEN, Azzi said that Sprint will deploy a CDMA-based PTT solution from Qualcomm which is an upgrade to the existing QChat product that Sprint deployed a few years ago. Azzi said that the original QChat did not work as well as iDEN and customer adoption rates were "short of what we had hoped for." Part of the problem, according to Azzi, was that coverage was not as comprehensive as iDEN.

Nevertheless, Sprint expects the new, improved QChat from Qualcomm will be comparable to iDEN but will also offer enhanced features which will help draw customers.

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