A powerhouse in the B2B cell space, Sprint has been struggling to fully integrate technologies since merging with Nextel and ClearWire. Currently, Sprint runs three distinct networks: iDEN (2G), CDMA (3G), and WiMAX(4G). Making these drastically disparate technologies play nice hasn’t been very easy. However, Sprint is making technical, functional, and business changes to improve things.
iDEN, Nextel’s push-to-talk network, rides the 800MHz spectrum – Sprint’s lowest frequency spectrum. With RF, the lower the frequency, the further into buildings a signal can penetrate. Combined with the low overhead and light duty data usage on the iDEN network, push-to-talk communications works effectively and reliably for those who need it. Typically, construction sites come to mind, but other large adopters of the technology include field service personnel, emergency response personnel, and delivery and asset management personnel. These job functions will require high-quality point-to-point “walkie-talkie” communications for the foreseeable future. Sprint will be moving push-to-talk services from iDEN over to CDMA. More than likely, the CDMA traffic will migrate to the 800MHz spectrum simultaneously, giving Sprint a much more effective 3G service. Additionally, equipment advances have allowed Sprint to reduce the size of key systems from refrigerator dimensions to something along the lines of a microwave oven. Soon, engineers will be able to fit supporting gear for all three spectrums into every cell site, vastly increasing coverage for all customers.
iDEN provides instant contact with multiple users at once. Moving push-to-talk to CDMA could potentially affect both the latency of communications and the reliability of the connections due to higher overhead and much greater traffic. Sprint has been working with hardware vendors and their networking team to overcome these potential pitfalls, thus giving customers a very similar experience on CDMA as they currently have on iDEN.
Sprint has been very public on their plans to eliminate iDEN. They have announced an $11B savings plan that includes ending support of iDEN by 2014. They have also announced a renewed contract with Motorola to supply and support the hardware through the end of 2013. When factoring in the expected time to complete the ClearWire merger and get WiMAX fully rolled out, Q1-2014 is clearly the targeted time frame for a major shift in Sprint’s market approach. NASCAR needs to start thinking of a new name for the Nextel Cup pretty quickly. The only real question is whether or not Sprint will migrate their 4G WiMAX from its current spectrum of 2500MHz to the current CDMA frequency of 1900MHz, thus allowing deeper structure penetration, or remain at 2500MHz since they own so much space in that spectrum. Remaining with the status quo would offer customers much more geographical coverage, but will likely crimp indoor speed potential for the super-fast 4G network.
With Verizon pounding “owning the air” into retail customers’ lexicons, and AT&T riding the iPhone wave for all it is worth, Sprint’s future will depend heavily on what happens on New Year’s Day, 2014. Let the countdown begin.
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