Sprint to shutter WiMAX network by end of 2015, will turn off at least 6,000 towers

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Sprint (NYSE:S) expects to shutter at least 6,000 cell sites as it makes plans to shut down WiMAX service by the end of 2015. Sprint has long said it would maintain WiMAX service through 2015, but has not given many details on what exactly it will do with the network after that date.

According to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, when Sprint bought Clearwire last summer the company had deployed WiMAX on around 17,000 cell sites and was in the process of deploying TD-LTE technology on around 5,000 of these sites--work that is now complete. Sprint plan to expand its TD-LTE deployment to around 5,000 more legacy Clearwire sites as part of its Sprint Spark tri-band LTE service. Sprint plans to expand Spark to 100 million POPs by the end of this year and roughly 100 markets by 2016.

The SEC filing notes that Sprint plans to "cease using WiMAX technology by the end of 2015." As part of that effort, Sprint said it identified approximately 6,000 "redundant sites that we expect to decommission and terminate the underlying leases." Sprint said the tower shutdowns will cost roughly $50 million to $100 million, but that "the timing of lease exit charges will be dependent upon the date we cease utilizing these sites without future economic benefit."

There is reason to suspect the number of cell sites Sprint plans to decommission could increase. In an SEC filing from last fall, Sprint had said it "identified approximately 4,300 redundant sites that we expect to decommission and terminate the underlying leases when we sunset the WiMAX technology in late 2015."

The WiMAX network will be the second network Sprint plans to shut down in as many years. The carrier shut down its iDEN Nextel network last year. It is now deploying LTE service on the 800 MHz spectrum freed from the iDEN network shutdown.

Last fall when Sprint unveiled Spark it noted it had around 55,000 macro cell sites. Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter told FierceWireless that Sprint expects "to maintain around 55,000 sites as we decommission some and add new ones."

Last spring, before it acquired Clearwire, Sprint started laying the groundwork to get its WiMAX customers onto LTE devices. Under its revised terms of service, Sprint said it "expressly reserves the right to migrate" customers from its WiMAX service to Sprint's LTE service. "Reasonable advance notice" will be given to customers who might be impacted, and they will have several options: They can choose to finish their contract without WiMAX capability, they can deactivate their service without being charged an early termination fee, or they can transition to Sprint's LTE network. If a customer chooses to switch to Sprint's LTE service, they "will receive a free standard Sprint LTE-capable device and can maintain" their existing service plan, "if available." Sprint said it also may provide other offers that are separate from the transition option, and these offers will be subject to a new two-year contract per line.

For more:
- see this SEC filing

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