With iDEN shutdown just days away, Sprint begins 800 MHz refarming for CDMA, LTE

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is just days away from shutting down service on its iDEN Nextel network--the last full day of service will be June 29--but is already looking to the advanced services it will enable on that vacated spectrum.

Bob Azzi, Sprint's senior vice president of networks


At the same time, Bob Azzi, Sprint's senior vice president of networks, reflected on the lessons Sprint learned during the course of the shutdown, which has been a key part of the carrier's Network Vision network modernization plan. In an interview with FierceWireless, he said that although the obvious lesson is that some technologies do not last forever, the "positive lesson is that there are ways to successfully migrate customers from things they were very used to and very comfortable with to a new set of products," that better suit their future needs.

Azzi said Sprint has already begun refarming the 800 MHz spectrum the iDEN network sat in, especially because those radio waves have better propagation characteristics than Sprint's 1900 MHz PCS spectrum. "It's obviously a spectrum band that has lot of value to us," he said.

Azzi said Sprint has already turned on CDMA 1X Advanced voice service in 800 MHz in some markets, and said that technology can be turned up "fairly quickly" across the country. Network Vision radios, which are now live in around 13,500 cell sites, have been tuned to use 800 MHz for voice service.

Sprint also plans to deploy LTE on a 5x5 MHz channel in its 800 MHz spectrum in the fourth quarter.

Azzi said Sprint has been seeding devices into the market that can take advantage of CDMA 1X Advanced and LTE in 800 MHz, so customers won't have to do anything to use the new services when they are fully deployed.

As for Sprint's efforts to transition iDEN customers to its CDMA and LTE networks, Azzi said most of Sprint's remaining iDEN customers are large government or enterprise customers. "Certainly I would say the primary energy out of the networks side and sales support side was working with those customers to get them successfully migrated," he said. Customer service and care departments have also been in contact for months with individual customers to encourage them to switch over, he said.

In order to ensure that large iDEN customers stayed with Sprint, the carrier in some cases tweaked its CDMA network to better cover those customers' locations, Azzi said. Further, he said the carrier in some cases provided those iDEN customers with training on its CDMA-powered PTT service.

As of the end of the first quarter, Sprint had around 1.31 million iDEN subscribers left. Azzi declined to say how many of those customers Sprint has been able to move over to its CDMA and LTE networks in the second quarter, but Sprint has forecasted it would "recapture" 30 to 40 percent (393,000 to 524,000) and keep them on Sprint's networks.

Some competitors have used Sprint's iDEN shutdown as a competitive wedge. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has been working assiduously since late last year to steal away iDEN customers with its new Enhanced Push-to-Talk service. AT&T recently made the service available to business customers using Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S through an app.

Sprint isn't the only carrier operating an iDEN network in the United States. SouthernLinc, which operates a small iDEN network in the Southeast, struck an agreement in March with MVNE Prepaid Wireless Wholesale to add nationwide GSM and UMTS service to its iDEN network footprint. SouthernLinc said the deal will allow it to provide its customers with iDEN push-to-talk service as well as high-speed data on GSM and UMTS networks. Prepaid Wireless Wholesale is a sister company of Prepaid Wireless Group, which has a national roaming agreement with T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) as Odin Mobile.

A SouthernLinc spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the future of SouthernLinc's iDEN service.

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SouthernLinc strikes deal to add nationwide GSM/UMTS to iDEN service