Sprint Nextel's methodical rollout of new cell sites with LTE may not win the deployment race, but each market that gets the upgrade will see competitive speeds and more complete coverage than other carriers may offer, executives said Wednesday.
At a breakfast briefing for reporters near the CTIA Wireless conference in New Orleans, Sprint executives voiced confidence about their Network Vision project, set to go live in the first half of this year, despite the already wide reach of Verizon's LTE network and AT&T's ongoing rollout.
"We'll start with incomplete coverage, I'll be upfront about that," said Bob Azzi, Sprint's senior vice president, Network. But in the areas where it carries out Network Vision, Sprint will upgrade every cell site with both LTE and improved 3G infrastructure, he said. Each market that's launched will get 100 percent LTE coverage within a matter of months.
That's because Network Vision isn't an overlay of LTE on top of an existing 3G network, but a whole new deployment in which Sprint will replace existing cell-site equipment, Azzi said. As a result, the nation's third-largest carrier will be ready to deploy the new LTE-Advanced standard, roll out LTE in the far-reaching 800MHz band pending regulatory approval, and add small cells and Wi-Fi to the mix for more capacity, he said.
Sprint has said it will launch LTE in six major cities in the first half of this year. Though it won't have as much spectrum as Verizon in its initial rollout, Sprint will match the bigger carrier's subscriber experience through its dense deployment and other efforts, such as steps to provide smooth handoffs between 4G and 3G, Azzi said.
"We're very confident that this dog will hunt," Azzi said.
Sprint's LTE deployment will begin with a pair of 5MHz channels in the 1.9GHz band, versus Verizon with a pair of 10MHz channels. But Sprint is looking at two other rich sources of spectrum for LTE. If it gets approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the carrier will be able to use frequencies in the 800MHz band through a software upgrade. That spectrum is now being used for the iDEN service Sprint inherited from Nextel, which is now being phased out. Later, Sprint will be able to tap into LTE capacity on partner Clearwire's network, which is set to go commercial early next year and will be used to fill in urban areas with high demand.
At each Network Vision site, the existing 2G/3G equipment is being removed and replaced with new gear that will offer significantly faster 3G performance as well as LTE. The project is on track, more than 700 sites on the air, construction in progress on more than 3,000 and zoning completed for about 9,500 sites, according to Sprint.
Starting fresh on the network, which Sprint is building with Ericsson, allowed it to build in support for future technologies, Azzi said. For example, the network architecture is ready to accommodate small cells that can help to make more efficient use of spectrum. Sprint already has more than 600,000 femtocells in use now. It plans to start installing picocells in large indoor venues such as stadiums and airports late this year and in early 2013, with picocells to cover outdoor public areas possible later next year.
The core of the network can also accommodate Wi-Fi, Sprint said. The company has no current plans to deploy Wi-Fi itself, but third-party public hotspots can help give subscribers capacity.
The Network Vision technology is fully tested and ready to go without surprises, said Iyad Tarazi, vice president of network development and engineering. Sprint's thorough development process took effort: Engineers had to do 75 releases of software and 23,000 test cases, Tarazi said.
All of Sprint's radios for its narrowband iDEN service are on track to be shut down before the end of this year. Sprint is working at shifting over iDEN users to its 3G CDMA network and said it is happy with progress on that score. The popular push-to-talk feature of iDEN is being replaced by Direct Connect, which runs on 3G and now matches the original technology in call setup, latency and call success, according to Sprint. The company is also making Direct Connect available as software for integration into third-party applications.
Sprint's other legacy network, the WiMax service it wholesales from Clearwire, can remain part of its offerings through 2015 or later. WiMax became available on Sprint's prepaid Boost and Virgin Mobile services this week.