Sprint's sprawling LTE plans now include Clearwire and LightSquared--and possibly Dish

Mike DanoWith Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) agreement today with Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), Sprint's LTE deployment plans have become much sharper--and far more extensive than the carrier has previously detailed.

Here's how it breaks down:

  • Sprint plans to sell TDD-LTE devices including laptop cards and phones that will run over Clearwire's TDD-LTE network starting in 2013.
  • Sprint will launch 5X5 FDD-LTE service on its G-Block 1900 MHz PCS spectrum by the middle of next year.
  • At some point in the future, Sprint plans to use its 800 MHz for LTE; the carrier currently uses 800 MHz for iDEN but will begin moving those customers off that spectrum by 2013.
  • Sprint may get access to LightSquared's 1600 MHz L-Band spectrum due to the 9-year, $15 billion network-hosting arrangement the companies inked in July.
  • Finally, Sprint last month gave its assent to Dish Network's plans to acquire 40 MHz of S-band satellite spectrum in the 2 GHz band, and it said that Dish's proposed LTE-Advanced network for that spectrum will not interfere with Sprint's operations on its adjacent 1900 MHz spectrum. One Sprint insider predicted Dish will build its planned LTE-Advanced network on Sprint's Network Vision platform because the alternatives (flip the spectrum or embark in a greenfield deployment) are not as attractive.

Of course, there are seemingly dozens of moving parts that could affect Sprint's overall 4G LTE deployment plans. Clearwire might not raise the extra money it needs to complete its TDD-LTE network build. LightSquared's LTE buildout might be scrapped due to extensive and ongoing concerns about the network's possible interference with precision GPS receivers. Sprint currently does not have any kind of agreement with Dish. And Sprint still needs between $1 billion and $3 billion just to complete its Network Vision program, which the carrier hopes to obtain through vendor financing.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Sprint's wide-ranging LTE vision is obtaining suitable LTE chipsets that could work across Sprint's CDMA operations at 1900 MHz; its LTE operations at 1900 and 800 MHz; Clearwire's TDD-LTE network at 2.5 GHz; LightSquared's 1600 MHz L-Band spectrum; and potentially Dish's satellite spectrum in the 2 GHz band. And that list doesn't include the possibility of such gadgets also accessing Clearwire's existing WiMAX network.

But Sprint is clearly planning ahead for chipsets that will be able to cover its ambitions. "We will be one of the only people out there that will have a coordinated FDD-TDD chipset," promised Sprint CFO Joseph Euteneuer during an appearance today at an investment banking conference. However, Euteneuer declined to say when such a chipset--which likely would allow roaming between Sprint's 1900 MHz FDD-LTE network and Clearwire's potential 2.5 GHz TDD-LTE network--would be available.

Further, such chipset gymnastics are not unheard of. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) managed to obtain chips to support both CDMA and LTE, and Sprint has scored dual-mode CDMA/WiMAX chips.

Another major question is whether Sprint will continue offering unlimited data access through its planned LTE network(s). Sprint remains the only major U.S. wireless carrier providing unlimited data, and that's set to continue thanks to Sprint's new agreement with Clearwire, which clearly calls for "unlimited 4G WiMAX retail services during 2012 and 2013." But I'm guessing Sprint will move to tiered data pricing with LTE.

Why? Sprint's planned 1900 MHz LTE deployment will use a 5x5 configuration, which doesn't leave the carrier with a lot of excess capacity. Further, Sprint's agreement with Clearwire for LTE establishes "long-term usage-based pricing for LTE services for 2012 and beyond." I think that indicates Sprint is planning ahead for a usage-based LTE future.

Will Sprint manage to orchestrate an LTE strategy that stretches across more than half a dozen bands and four different companies? Only time will tell, but given Sprint's willingness to take big risks for the possibility of big rewards (see its $15.5 billion, four-year deal with Apple) I think it's a distinct possibility. +Mike Dano