Sprint could kill iDEN by next June
After FCC permitted it to refarm Nextel's 800MHz spectrum, carrier will migrate customers to CDMA in mid-2013
Published: 29 May, 2012
After securing approval to refarm its 800MHz spectrum for 3G and LTE, Sprint has wasted no time in setting out plans to kill off its legacy iDEN service, which currently lives in that band. That could no go dark as early as June 2013.
The US regulator, the FCC, voted unanimously on Thursday to remove technical restrictions in the spectrum, making it technology neutral and paving the way for Sprint to progress with a key element of its ambitious network modernization scheme. It is currently building a flexible network in its CDMA spectrum, to support parallel operation of existing and LTE networks, from a common infrastructure, which could also host third parties' RANs. The next step will be to migrate from iDEN, the ageing system it acquired with Nextel, to 3G and 4G.
Sprint had indicated it would build LTE in 800MHz from 2014. Its first step on that path will come as soon as June 30 next year, when it will turn off the Direct Connect push-to-talk services. These were the lifeblood of iDEN in its heyday but Sprint has been transitioning customers to CDMA and will complete that process over the next 12 months.
The other main use of the iDEN network is to support the Boost Mobile prepaid brand, which will also be migrated. Boost has benefited from being able to use the increasingly empty capacity on iDEN to offer very price competitive services, but it is now basing some of its headline unlimited data propositions on Clearwire's WiMAX network, which also has plentiful capacity (and far higher data rates).
Sprint itself will defocus on WiMAX as it moves its 'Sprint 4G' offering to LTE, though it retains a strategic partnership with Clearwire. It recently said it would launch no new WiMAX devices and the same goes for iDEN. The carrier said it had already stopped selling some Nextel devices, and in the next few months it will discontinue that portfolio completely. In parallel, it will shut down Nextel sites progressively - initially just those which are surplus to capacity requirements, but later this year with a view to shutdown. It has launched a mapping tool which shows customers the sites that are due to be decommissioned.
The FCC vote last week was expected, but still an important green light for Sprint's plans to boost CDMA capacity and coverage, and then deploy 800MHz LTE. Steve Elfman, president of network operations at the carrier, said recently that the cellco had received 3GPP certification for Band Class 26 to use its 800MHz spectrum for LTE. Although 800MHz LTE will be common in many parts of the world, as this is the digital dividend spectrum in Europe and many parts of Asia, the band plan in Sprint's case is very different so devices will not be compatible.
The vote allowed 'advanced services' to be run in the 800MHz SMR (Specialized Mobile Radio) spectrum. The changed rules allow geographically-based SMR licensees to operate across contiguous channels without a rigid channel spacing requirement or bandwidth limitation. Those restrictions had made the band unsuitable to 3G or 4G networks. However, Sprint will still have to obey certain rules designed to avoid interference with nearby public safety services.
To further help its Network Vision program become real, Sprint announced it had entered into a new $1bn credit facility with Deutsche Bank and a syndicate of other banks, to finance equipment purchases from Ericsson, one of its three suppliers (the others are Alcatel-Lucent and Samsung).