Sprint to deploy LTE in iDEN spectrum in 2014

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan.--Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) intends to deploy LTE services on its 800 MHz spectrum sometime by 2014, according to senior company executives. The 800 MHz spectrum is where its iDEN network currently resides.

Elfman

Steve Elfman, president of network operations at Sprint, told reporters at a briefing here at Sprint's corporate headquarters that the company has already received 3GPP certification for Band Class 26 to use its 800 MHz spectrum for LTE. The FCC will ultimately have to approve the use of the spectrum for LTE, according to Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks. However, he said that process, which has already begun, should proceed smoothly.

Sprint had previously said it would use 800 MHz spectrum for LTE, but had not said when it would do so. Azzi said the timing of the 800 MHz LTE deployment will depend on how quickly Sprint can move iDEN customers off the spectrum.

Sprint currently plans to deploy LTE Release 9 by mid-year on the G-Block of its 1900 MHz PCS spectrum in a 5x5 MHz block of spectrum. As part of Sprint's Network Vision network modernization plan, Sprint is migrating its iDEN customers off its 800 MHz spectrum to its CDMA Direct Connect service, powered by a new solution from Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). As it transitions those customers, Sprint will also use its 800 MHz spectrum for CDMA voice services, including 1X Advanced voice, in addition to LTE.

During the briefing, which included representatives from Network Vision vendors Alcatel-Lucent (NASDAQ:ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Samsung, Sprint executives provided more details about the various components of the multi-billion dollar project. Azzi said that work by all three vendors is underway across all of Sprint's markets and that substantial progress has been made to deploy the new multi-mode base stations that are the centerpiece of Network Vision. Sprint has identified 17 markets to switch on the new architecture, he said, though he declined to name all of them.

Sprint is planning to launch LTE first in Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and San Antonio, Texas. Azzi said Sprint is still planning to cover 123 million POPs with LTE by year-end, and 250 million POPs with LTE by the end of 2013.

Reiterating what Sprint CFO Joe Euteneuer said at an investor conference in March, Azzi said that Sprint will be able to deliver an LTE network performance that is comparable to what Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) offer with their LTE networks, even though both Verizon and AT&T are launching LTE in the 700 MHz spectrum with mostly 10x10 MHz blocks. Both Verizon and AT&T promise average downlink speeds of 5-12 Mbps. Azzi noted that Sprint has half the number of customers as Verizon and AT&T, and that Sprint will be able to offload traffic on Clearwire's (NASDAQ:CLWR) forthcoming TD-LTE network. 

Clearwire has said it intends to have its first wave of its 5,000 TD-LTE cell sites up and running by June 2013. Sprint is working with Clearwire to identify areas for its LTE sites in markets where traffic is expected to grow the most, Azzi said.

"When you think about fully-loaded networks, we all wind up in the same place in terms of the experience in the network," Azzi said.

Azzi also noted that with LTE Advanced, which Sprint plans to roll out in the first half of 2013, the company will be able to take advantage of carrier aggregation technology. This, he said, will allow Sprint to repurpose 1900 MHZ spectrum used for CDMA and pair it with Sprint's G-Block 1900 MHz spectrum for LTE. Elfman said Sprint is always looking for more spectrum, but said nothing has been decided about trying to specifically acquire additional 1900 MHz spectrum. 

As part of the plan, Sprint will decommission 9,600 iDEN cell sites this year, or about one-third of its iDEN cell sites. Azzi said many of these are sites no longer needed because they were added when Sprint had roughly 20 million total iDEN Nextel customers. Elfman said the company now has fewer than 6 million iDEN customers. The rest of the iDEN sites will be decommissioned in 2013.

The Network Vision project will also lead to several improvements in the performance of Sprint's 3G CDMA network, executives said. These improvements include better coverage for voice and data (which will reduce Sprint's roaming costs to Verizon), and a better voice experience on the 800 MHZ spectrum. Since mid-2011, Sprint's devices have been shipping with the ability to take advantage of CDMA voice on the 800 MHz band.

Interestingly, Azzi said that Sprint has had discussions with smaller carriers that are members of the Rural Cellular Association about LTE roaming, but that nothing concrete has been decided. "We have some common interest that we do want to explore with the competitive industry," he said, adding there is "lots of interest in figuring out how do you amalgamate different resources to create very effective competitors to the big two," meaning Verizon and AT&T.

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