Sprint: Network upgrade will help migrate iDEN customers to CDMA

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) plans to use its network modernization project to improve the in-building coverage of its 1900 MHz CDMA spectrum, migrate iDEN customers to CDMA, and give it the flexibility to deploy a range of technologies, including LTE, according to a senior executive.

Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks at Sprint, Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks at Sprint, told BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk that Sprint's choices will affect its network for the next seven to 10 years. The goals of the project, Azzi said, include: improving the quality of Sprint's CDMA network; maximizing its spectrum holdings in the 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz bands; migrating iDEN customers to CDMA over the long term, and offering push-to-talk services on CDMA; and using the company's 800 MHz spectrum for voice, eventually taking advantage of 1X Advanced technology.

Sprint CFO Bob Brust told investors earlier this month that six vendors, which he did not name, provided proposals for the project earlier this year. He said Sprint's management team is reviewing the vendors' final bids now, and that Steve Elfman, president of Sprint's network operations and wholesale, is spearheading the process. Brust said a decision on the issue should be made shortly, and that Sprint likely will provide details on the effort later this year.

Azzi said the new radios Sprint plans to deploy as part of the project will provide higher power outputs and will be more efficient in the reverse link and the forward link, which he said will help erase some of the difference in in-building penetration between Sprint's 800 MHz spectrum (where it operates its iDEN network) and its 1900 MHz spectrum.

A key focus for Sprint, Azzi said, will be to continue serving iDEN customers until they decide where they are going to go. Azzi said the technology evolution plan will improve the CDMA network and allow Sprint to provide push-to-talk service on it. That, coupled with its 3G and 4G data offerings, will hopefully give iDEN customers incentives to stay with Sprint, he added. Importantly, any migration to CDMA will not be a forced migration.

Azzi did not discuss the ultimate future of iDEN, and Sprint representatives did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on the topic.

Azzi said Sprint will replace radios, base stations and antennas as part of the effort, which will eventually decrease the number of its cell sites from 66,000 to 46,000. Azzi said Sprint is evolving its network "with a whole new architecture at the base station that substantially simplifies the operations, gives us flexibility for access, and it gives us the performance improvement" the company has been looking for.

The carrier's new multi-mode base stations will give Sprint the ability to deploy CDMA 1X for voice and data, EV-DO, WiMAX and even LTE via a software upgrade, which Azzi said could be added at a low incremental cost. Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), in which Sprint holds a 54 percent stake, has been deploying mobile WiMAX across the country and plans to cover 80 markets by year-end. Clearwire also plans LTE trials in Phoenix.

"We know the technology changes," Azzi said. "And this network architecture gives the flexibility to adapt and change as we need to, as the marketplace and our strategic choices dictate."

Azzi said Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), which inked a seven-year, $5 billion network outsourcing deal with Sprint in July 2009, will operate the new equipment and "will have a very important role of managing the transition."

Azzi did not provide an exact cost estimate for the network modernization project, but Piecyk estimated it will cost $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion.

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