Sprint, Ericsson hashing out small cell contract details

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is negotiating to add Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) to its list of small cell equipment suppliers, according to a top executive with the carrier.

Sprint announced in August that it would deploy Alcatel-Lucent's (NASDAQ: ALU) lightRadio metrocell architecture gear as well as Samsung's small cell gear throughout its footprint. Both are suppliers for Sprint's Network Vision infrastructure project as is Ericsson. When the August small cell contracts were announced Ericsson was missing from Sprint's list of small cell suppliers. That is apparently about to change, however.

"We have, as you have heard, inked one relationship with ALU (Alcatel-Lucent) and one relationship with Samsung, and we're able to use them to cover the entire country. We are also in discussions with Ericsson as well, but we don't have an agreement in place yet as we're still working out the details, Iyad Tarazi, Sprint Nextel vice president of network development and engineering, told FierceBroadbandWireless.

Sprint is moving aggressively to deploy indoor picocells to boost coverage and capacity for its nascent LTE network. "These are smaller, lighter LTE picos that will plug directly into our core network. They're aimed at indoor end applications, even though they do have outdoor form factors as well, if you want to plug them on the outside of the building," said Tarazi.

However, he said the outdoor market is much more challenging for small cell deployments because of issues involving interference, backhaul and rights of way/property rights. For that reason, Tarazi does not expect to see mass deployments of outdoor small cells prior to 2014.

Sprint has been a leader in small cell deployment, seeing it as a way to expand its network cost effectively and help it continue offering unlimited data pricing for smartphones, which has been a key differentiator for the operator.

"We've been very vocal about transitioning the industry in this space because of our focus on scaling the cost and continuing to provide unlimited, which is really where this passion around this comes from. We are finding more ways to deploy more networks faster, cheaper, better so we can maintain our unlimited plans and give customers what they want. Ultimately that's what drives this strategy for us more than anything else," he said.

Airvana supplies Sprint's 3G CDMA femtocells. In July Sprint revealed in an FCC filing that it had 950,000 femtocells operating on its network.

The operator is also getting into 3G enterprise femtocells, which are being supplied by Ubee-Airwalk. Enterprise femtos can handle 30 simultaneous users and are specifically targeted toward small businesses."We have a few hundred of them deployed right now, and we expect to do thousands of them," said Tarazi.

"The femto and the e-femto product are fairly mature today around 3G. We will over time potentially add 4G in them, especially for the consumer device, but we will also focus on a 4G-only pico that obviously has higher power, higher capacity. And we are looking to combine the two of them next to each other so we can keep the form factors simple, the deployment strategy simple and implementable," he said.

Related articles:
Sprint CTO embraces small cells, but tempers enthusiasm
Sprint embraces Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio network gear
Alca-Lu announces new base station architecture to handle data traffic
Sprint boosts femtocell count to 950,000
Sprint launches LTE, promises average speeds of 6-8 Mbps

This article was updated on Sept. 24, 2012, to correct the spelling of Iyad Tarazi's name.