LTE Spectrum: It’s War

Clearwire and Sprint are reportedly at loggerheads over the wholesale cost of WiMAX service for Sprint’s mobile devices. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse threatened to find another 4G network provider if Sprint and Clearwire couldn’t reach a resolution. Sprint is making its case for lower wholesale rates by saying it could go elsewhere for LTE spectrum. That somewhere else is Lightsquared.

The discussions between LightSquared and Sprint appear to be focused on a “network sharing agreement”, which would presumably allow both companies to save money on the costs of their network rollout/upgrades and share backhaul, reports Tim Farrar of TMF Associates.

Whether this would involve Sprint committing to purchase capacity from LightSquared or become an investor in LightSquared is unclear. LightSquared claims five customers may use their terrestrial LTE capacity. Some of the mooted partners, such as MetroPCS, apparently envisage a mutual roaming agreement.

Meanwhile, if Sprint decides to deploy LTE, the company could have a live LTE network this year, with nationwide LTE coverage by year-end 2013, reports Fierce Wireless. Wednesday, Steve Elfman, Sprint’s president of network operations and wholesale, said that the company will not make a decision regarding LTE deployment until mid-year.

He added that if Sprint does decide to deploy LTE it could turn it on quickly and have LTE devices by 2012. Elfman added that the reason the company will not make a decision until mid-year is because Sprint wants to establish and announce a strategy that is still being determined by the company and its partner Clearwire.

Sprint also plans to re-purpose some of its 800MHz spectrum for CDMA service in its Network Vision thing. Nextel’s 800 MHz frequencies would increase coverage density across the country. It will then launch its next generation of push-to-talk services on its CDMA network in 2011, and Sprint expects to phase out its iDEN sites beginning in 2013.

The 2.5 GHz band is globally coordinated and available for LTE, and has been operational in Sweden for more than a year. Carrier gear for 2.5 GHz is now available off the shelf and may use Sprint’s base station gear (with a card swap), antennas, towers and propagation models. Global roaming on 2.5 GHz LTE makes it compelling.

Clearwire is testing 90Mbps LTE, using LTE in 2×10 MHz, 2×20 MHz and 1×20 Mhz (TDD) configurations using gear from Samsung and Huawei. An LTE swapout for Sprint wouldn’t cost a lot of money. And they’ve got the spectrum.

But satellite spectrum is in play. Both ICO and TerreStar spent some $600 million building, launching and creating infrastructure for new 2GHz mobile satellites with huge antennas. Both have operational spacecraft and both declared bankruptcy. Both have some 20 MHz available that can now be used for terrestrial cellular service. It’s potentially a cheap buy-in for national spectrum. Lightsquared, with an operational 1.6 GHz satellite, is ready to go (with 20+ MHz available).

Both these satellite operators need a terrestrial partner. Buying a nationwide LTE spectrum license for a few billion dollars would seem to be a compelling bargain for any carrier. But who will buy in?

The 120-150 MHz of 2.6GHz terrestrial spectrum owned by Sprint, Clearwire, and cable companies is by far the largest chunk of spectrum real estate available today. Sprint has towers in place. But propagation would be better using Lightsquared 1.6 GHz or the combined 40 MHz of ICO/Terrestar (at 2 GHz).

It seem like too few dollars are chasing too much spectrum. The combined spectrum holdings currently used by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint (less Clearwire) and T-Mobile – across all their bands – total about 250 Mhz. They could nearly double that amount just by using available MSS satellite spectrum (90 MHz) and unused Clearwire spectrum (100MHz).

Verizon and AT&T haven’t even touched their 10-20 MHz of AWS frequencies yet, for which they paid a combined $5 billion. This is a battle for almost ten times that amount — made available by Clearwire (100MHz+), Lightsquared (20-50 MHz) and the combined ICO/TerreStar (40 MHz) MSS satellites.

Unfortunately, TerreStar has finally admitted the obvious, and the AT&T Genus phone is no more. Only a few hundred phones have been sold and reviews of the Genus continue to be mediocre at best.

Perhaps AT&T would go with Terrestar (above), while Verizon will go with Lightsquared. That leaves T-Mobile and Sprint, who may prefer LTE on 2.6 GHz.

It doesn’t prevent new competition from emerging. Google, Microsoft, WalMart, investor groups or foreign carriers might also want a piece of this action. MSS satellite and Clearwire have spectrum to burn.

Congress now wants to auction an additional 120 Mhz of TV-band frequencies to pay for the National Wireless Initiative, a nation-wide, 700 MHz network dedicated exclusively for first responders. Good luck with that. Then there’s the unlicensed white spaces. How that will play out is anyone’s guess.

Bottom line: Consumers may win.

Related DailyWireless stories includes; Lightsquared + Sprint?, White Space: Now With TD-LTE?, National Wireless Initiative, Sprint LTE: If Not When, Phoney Spectrum Scarcity, More T-Mobile Spectrum Rumors, Charlie’s Big Play, T-Mobile: No Spectrum Deal…Yet, T-Mobile Makes Its (4G) Move, Clearwire testing 90Mbps LTE, FCC Green Lights Lightsquared, Lightsquared: What GPS Interference?, Harbinger Sells Inmarsat Shares , FCC Green Lights Lightsquared, T-Mobile: No Spectrum Deal…Yet, Charlie’s Big Play , FCC Green Lights Lightsquared, LightSquared: In Trouble?, Lightsquared Unfurled, MetroPCS Eyes TerreStar, SkyTerra 1 Launched,

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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