Sprint likely in no hurry to announce 4G strategy

Lynnette LuneEveryone is waiting with anticipation it seems to find out what Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) 4G network strategy will be. While it promised to make an announcement by mid-year, it may take much longer than that.

That's because there are several network-sharing options on the table.

In December, Sprint chose Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung to modernize its network three- to five-year project that is expected to cost $4 billion to $5 billion. The key to the project is the deployment of new multi-mode base stations, which Sprint has said will give the operator greater technology flexibility, and could allow the carrier to deploy LTE at minimal cost.

This puts Sprint in the position to make network sharing possible, a trend that is ever growing in Europe as a way to save on capital costs.

Back in April, rumors were swirling that Sprint was in advanced negotiations to strike network-sharing deals with both Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) and LightSquared. Sprint has been using Clearwire's mobile WiMAX network to offer service to its customers, but Clearwire's network buildout has stalled at around 130 million POPs and the company has lost the first-mover advantage it had over Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ). Sprint, which is Clearwire's largest wholesale customer, holds a 54 percent stake in Clearwire.

Sprint reportedly also has made a long-term network-sharing deal with LightSquared. According to a letter Philip Falcone reportedly sent to investors of Harbinger Capital partners, which is backing LightSquared, LightSquared and Sprint will jointly develop, deploy and operate LightSquared's LTE network, and Sprint will become a significant customer of the network.

But Sprint has not confirmed such a deal. Recently other possibilities have popped up.

This week a U.S. bankruptcy court judge has approved a $1.375 billion offer from Dish Network for TerreStar Networks' assets, making it the "stalking horse" bid for the assets. UBS analyst John Hodulik sees the possibility that Dish would partner with Sprint to build a terrestrial network using Terrestar spectrum.

Sprint also has talked up the possibility of hosting public-safety LTE traffic now that it appears more certain the D-block is going to the public-safety community.

Tim Farrar, principal analyst with TMF Associates, has pointed out that Sprint would rather have a partner that isn't going to go out of business. He added that Sprint wouldn't likely be able to use public-safety spectrum, but the government could assist in offloading some of Sprint's Network Vision buildout costs.

At any rate, given the options--several of which aren't so stable--Sprint will likely take it's time in announcing any 4G strategy. --Lynnette