Sprint’s Network Vision Detailed

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Sprint’s Network Vision strategy was unveiled today by Sprint executives (pdf). Sprint plans to use their own Nextel frequencies (at 1.9GHz) and Lightsquared (at 1.6 GHz) rather than pursue further development of the 2.6 GHz band which they and Clearwire jointly own and operate. Sprint owns about 54% of Clearwire which currently uses WiMAX. Clearwire announced its own LTE-Advanced strategy in August which will use Time Division LTE (TD-LTE) on their 2.6 GHz spectrum.

Sprint, apparently, is having none of that, kicking Clearwire out of the nest. Sprint will be using Frequency Division flavor of LTE, on their own Nextel frequencies. Sprint expects to cover more than 120 markets and launch 12 to 15 compatible devices beginning early next year. By the end of 2013, Sprint expects their new 4G service will be in more than 260 markets. WiMAX will be phased out.

Sprint’s integrated Network Vision would merge their iDen network, CDMA network and 4G network into a single support structure for lower costs, less maintenance, improved range and flexibility.

Sprint’s LTE plans include four different bands of spectrum; 800MHz (iDEN), 1,900MHz (PCS & iDEN), 1,600MHz (Lightsquared), and possibly 2,500MHz (Clearwire).

AT&T and Verizon use the 700MHz spectrum for LTE. The 700 and 800 MHz band has better range than 1.9 GHz. Similarly, the 1.9 GHz band has better range than 2.6 GHz, which is also a 4G “world band”.

Once the iDEN network has been decommissioned, the 800MHz spectrum will be freed up for 3G CDMA voice service and 4G LTE data service. Sprint is confident that it has enough spectrum holdings to maintain capacity through 2015.

Sprint Nextel will launch FD-LTE service on Nextel’s PCS spectrum (1.9GHz) which Nextel acquired (but has not yet used) from Nextel’s Consensus Plan swap.

Nextel gave their interfering 800 MHz frequencies to public safety users in exchange for 10 MHz in the PCS band. That spectrum is still not utilized because Nextel first had to move legacy users – tv remote trucks – to another frequency and buy microwave gear for them. Broadcasters have traditionally received corporate welfare from the FCC in the form of free spectrum.

TV remote trucks made room for the Nextel PCS spectrum by moving up the band and using digital compression. The frequency swap also enabled the FCC to stick in a new AWS band as well as a new 2.1 GHz (MSS) satellite phone band for TerraStar and ICO (which has not been successful).

While Verizon uses 2×10 MHz channels at 700 MHz, Sprint would use 2×5 MHz channels at 1.9 GHz. Their Nextel spectrum at 1.9 GHz would be roughly half the speed at half the range. But Sprint’s G-Block spectrum will be combined with other 1900 MHz spectrum for its LTE service. Sprint currently has an average of 20-25 MHz per market nationwide using their 1900 (PCS) service.

Nextel’s push to talk used Motorola’s iDEN technology which supports up to six phone users per 25 kHz channel. Sprint’s new Direct Connect phones use CDMA instead of iDEN which enables both 3G data speeds along with instant one-to-one connection.

Sprint first plans to deploy CDMA 1X voice service in its 800 MHz spectrum, since it has better penetrating power, and LTE on the unused 1900 MHz Nextel spectrum. Next it will move CDMA traffic off its PCS cellular band to make room for LTE.

The Network Vision plan uses infrastructure equipment from Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung. It supports 1.9GHz (LTE and CDMA), 800MHz (CDMA) and 1.6GHz (LTE-LightSquared) via a single radio. By the end of next year, Sprint aims to have a combined WiMAX/LTE population coverage of 176 million — with 123 million covered by LTE and 76 million overlapping both.

Wi-MAX-enabled phones like Sprint’s ground-breaking EVO will be dropped. Newer 4G phones will support just two standards — CDMA and LTE — on a variety of frequencies.

Only Sprint’s mobile hot spots will be able to run on both Clearwire’s WiMax and Sprint’s own LTE network. Currently the WiMAX network is stagnating covering some 130 million potential users and 8 million subscribers.

With less hand-off and longer range, the PCS (and 800 MHz) frequencies may provide better mobile coverage for LTE-enabled phones like the anticipated iPhone 5.

CEO Dan Hesse said the company’s churn rate was high due to a lack of having the iPhone. The Network Vision announcement was delayed until after the launch of the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S which the company is betting will be a hit.

The 4G LTE capability will be built on a single architecture. LightSquared will ride on this too, using the Sprint backhaul.

Sprint expects to see iDEN like performance from their CDMA Push-to-Talk Network, which launched on October 2nd. The migration from iDEN to CDMA (on 800MHz) and CDMA to FD-LTE (on 1.9 GHz) is expected to be finished by mid 2013.

Sprint made little mention of their 2.6 GHz spectrum or relationship with Clearwire.

Sprint will reduce tower hardware with multi-mode radios and antennas, lowering maintenance costs. At the top of the tower, in the same radio, Sprint will have 1.9 LTE, 1.9 CDMA, 800 CDMA and in the future 800 LTE. A separate radio and antenna would provide hosted terrestrial LTE service for LightSquared at 1.6 GHz — pending FCC approval of course.

Sprint says LTE deployment will be rapid. The first markets will be launching in mid- 2012 and will be largely complete by the end of 2013. User devices will be available for launch in mid 2012. Sprint is working with Qualcomm on device chips. Sprint says they will be selling WiMAX devices through 2012.

The benefits include reduced roaming costs, consolidated networks and site reduction, reduced operating costs and more efficient use of CapEx. Sprint has 60,000 cell sites now and they’d like to be around 40,000. Sprint has started work on 22,000 cell sites. The balance will be started in the next few months.

Everywhere Sprint has 3G coverage, it will also have 4G coverage. Sprint claims coverage in many areas will improve dramatically once 4G LTE replaces 3G service.

Sprint has three key partners involved with the infrastructure side of its 4G LTE plans: Samsung, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson.

What costs more? LTE or WiMAX? Typically there’s a cost curve with any new technology. Sprint says they’re catching LTE at the right cost curve with second and third generation LTE radios such as Qualcomm’s 8960. It’s not only an application processor but it supports multiple bands for multiple carriers, including Sprint’s 1900MHz band A-F and G (Nextel). It’s implemented when the cost curve crosses over from 3rd and 4th generation WiMAX chips.

Sprint will deliver dual-mode CDMA/LTE products and handsets by the first half of 2012. Tablets, smartphones, high-tier iconic devices and mid-tier products will be coming in 2012.

Qualcomm is one of the largest designers of mobile ARM chips. Their single-core MSM8930 is the world’s first single-chip solution with an integrated LTE modem designed to take LTE to mass market smartphones. The single-core MSM8930, dual-core MSM8960 and the quad-core APQ8064 can all handle LTE.

What is most interesting about this announcement was the lack of news surrounding Sprint’s 2.6 GHz spectrum, Clearwire, or any TD-LTE implementation.

Dan Hesse was asked what happens with Clearwire moving forward: “We will continue to sell additional WiMAX devices through the end of 2012. We have nothing beyond 2012 to announce with regard to Clearwire,” Dan Hesse said.

Clearwire released a statement regarding Sprint Network Vision:

“As the largest wholesaler of 4G capacity, with unmatched spectrum, Clearwire is uniquely positioned to offer capacity to Sprint, and other carriers, particularly in urban areas where demand is high and their 4G spectrum will be inadequate. Sprint remains dependent on Clearwire for 4G and nothing about today’s announcement changes that. Even with their re-allocation of existing spectrum, it’s obvious that their spectrum resources are insufficient to meet the long term demands of mobile data, but this is not unique to Sprint. Data capacity will clearly stress the capabilities of the low capacity 4G deployments of other carriers due to their spectrum constraints.

“We are also working globally with other members of the Global TDD-LTE Initiative (GTI), including China Mobile, to develop a low-cost, highly scalable device ecosystem that will work across various LTE networks and frequencies. As demand for mobile data increases, Clearwire remains the only viable 4G wholesaler with an operating 4G network, substantial spectrum resources, and a global technology road map to serve this growing market.”

Clearwire needs to raise between $150 million and $300 million for the maintenance of its existing WiMAX network and $600 million to begin rolling out LTE-Advanced network technology. Sprint owns about half of Clearwire but does not appear to be interested in financing Clearwire’s LTE buildout.

When Sprint was asked why it would spend $6 or $8 or $10 billion it doesn’t have to cover 250 million pops nationwide when by spending $600 million at Clearwire it could upgrade the 120 million pops already covered in WIMAX to LTE, the audience broke into applause for the question, reports Forbes, which had penetrating analysis of Sprint’s plan. The questioner was told her facts weren’t right.

Calculating the total spectrum owned by wireless companies is not straightforward. Carriers might own 10 MHz, 20MHz for even 30MHz in big cities, but nothing in smaller communities. Still, Mary Meeker’s Power Point charts (above) has been widely used as a handy estimate.

AT&T and Verizon will need more spectrum for LTE in a few years. They would likely expand into AWS (1.7/2.1 GHz) first. Both companies have spent billions on those (currently unused) frequency bands. Sprint has no AWS. They’ll need more 4G spectrum, too, soon enough. Clearwire has spectrum to burn.

Sprint-Nextel may be tempted to develop 1.9 – 2.1 GHz. The adjoining AWS-2 band and MSS satellite (near 2 GHZ) are nearly contiguous with Sprint’s frequencies. Dish, which now owns the 40 MHz of 2.1 GHz could be a fallback position for Sprint if Lightsquared goes belly up. Sprint might then sell off portions of their 2.6 GHz spectrum.

The limited range of 2.6 GHz could also be a factor. If 20 MHz wide TD-LTE channels were used by Sprint as their main 4G strategy, the reduced range of TD-LTE over FD-LTE may require increased tower density or a relay-cell strategy.

Clearwire, which IS going down the TD-LTE path, may be focusing on “wireless DSL” rather than mobile phones. Phones – at 2.6 GHz – may be prone to spotty service.

Sprint has the right to cancel the deal with Lightsquared if they don’t get FCC approval for tower siting by the end of the year. That’s a tight deadline. Dish networks could also partner with Sprint, placing their 2.1 GHz MSS repeaters on Sprint towers. The outcome of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is another unknown.

Perhaps Sprint would bump Clearwire from a tower spot while starving them of business as a strategy to push them closer to insolvency – then buy their spectrum.

One attendee at the Sprint conference asked what would happen if LightSquared failed to raise enough money for the hosting agreement, and why anyone would want to invest in LightSquared when they can see what Sprint is apparently doing to Clearwire investors.

A Dish/Clearwire partnership could be an effective triple play competitor – but it would need billions. Maybe China Mobile, Qualcomm, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google or Comcast will put up the cash. A Clearwire/Dish network might target residential “wireless DSL” and tablets, but it still might need an established operator to run the mobile business – someone like T-Mobile, MetroPCS – or Sprint.

Dissolving Clearwire and selling off 80-100 MHz of 2.6 GHz spectrum could be another option. A Sprint/Clearwire/Dish troika could drop the problematic Lightsquared. Everything fits together. Sprint/Clearwire/Dish get 60 GHz of contiguous spectrum around 2 GHz. Clearwire keeps 40 GHz for TD- LTE backhaul. Verizon and AT&T buy remaining assets of Clearwire to build out 2.6 GHz.

All that is just idle speculation, of course.

Sprint’s Network Vision seems like a reasonable 4G solution. But telecommunications is in such flux today that even the best plans may be subject to change.

Related Dailywireless articles include; Clearwire Chooses LTE Advanced, Will Sprint Go TD-LTE?, WiMAX to TD-LTE: Everybody’s Doin’ It, Speculation on Sprint Infrastructure, LG Telecom: CDMA & LTE Handover, LTE Spectrum: It’s War, German 4G Auction: It’s Done, Auctions Winding Down in Germany & India, EU: Global LTE Roaming at 1.8 GHz, End Near for Indian WiMAX?, WiMAX & LTE: Policy Vs Pragmatism, Intel: LTE Not Nail in Coffin, India’s Broadband Auction: It’s Done, TD-LTE Gains Momentum, WiMAX Forum: Not Dead Yet, Yota Dumps WiMAX,

Posted by Sam Churchill on Friday, October 7th, 2011 at 7:09 am .

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