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Making Sense of Sprint’s Network Vision
Apr 7th, 2012 by Dan Lampie

A little over six months ago, Sprint-Nextel laid out its strategy for revamping its wireless network and called the plan “Network Vision.”  If you have read any of my previous articles about Sprint, you would know that Sprint has not had any real network strategy since purchasing Nextel back in 2005.  Today Sprint still has numerous sites where they have yet to combine their iDEN, CDMA/EVDO, and Clearwire’s WiMax network which has resulted in poor coverage and high maintenance and real estate costs.  Well this is all about to change with Network Vision.  After seven years without any true network plan, Sprint-Nextel has something that actually makes sense.

Sprint Network Vision Tower (Alcatel-Lucent Equipment)

 

Here is a brief overview of what “Network Vision” entails.  The website, http://s4gru.com, has some excellent detailed information on what “Network Vision” really means from a technical perspective.

- Consolidate its cell sites, by removing sites that are not needed.  Sprint currently has 68,000 sites and will reduce this by 44% to eventually remain with 38,000 sites.

* AT&T claims they have 55,000 cell sites so once Network Vision is completed its nationwide coverage will still lag behind that of AT&T.


- Shutting down iDEN and reusing the spectrum to support at least one 800MHz CDMA 1X Advanced carrier.

* Deploying a 1X carrier in the 800MHz spectrum will greatly improve the voice performance along with coverage for Sprint, especially inside buildings.

Frequency plan for new 1X advanced carriers. Source: s4gru.com

 

- Deploying a LTE carrier in a 5x5MHz channel configuration in their 1900MHz (PCS) spectrum.

* LTE is the future and this will give Sprint the opportunity to have a nationwide LTE network.
* 5MHz channels will offer only half the data speeds of the 10MHz channel that Verizon Wireless uses.  Still it will be vastly faster than EVDO with 50ms latency.
* Deploying on the 1900MHz spectrum will mean that Sprint will not have as good coverage or indoor penetration as either Verizon Wireless or AT&T which are using 700MHz.

PCS Band Plan. Source: howardforums.com


- Using Remote Radio Heads (RRH) for their existing CDMA/EVDO network and upcoming LTE network
* RRH moves the base station amplifier from the bottom of the tower to the top of the tower.  This eliminates the attenuation of long runs of coax cable up the tower.  According to this spec sheet from Andrews, 100FT of 1 ¼ coax has a loss of 1.6dB at 1900MHz, or a power loss of 31% at the top of the tower.  Thus going with the RRH solution should yield 30%+ more power output along with a 30% increase in receive power over today’s coax solution.
* This should improve coverage and performance of Sprint’s existing CDMA/EVDO network.  The combination of the 800MHz spectrum and RRH should really help Sprint’s voice coverage.

Sprint is using three RRH per face (1 for 800MHz CDMA, 1 for PCS EVDO, 1 for PCS LTE)

 

At the end of the day Sprint will have a CDMA/EVDO/LTE network, just like Verizon Wireless.  By consolidating its cell sites and turning off iDEN, Sprint will save a ton of money on operating expenses.  It is interesting that Sprint is investing a lot of time and money upgrading CDMA/EVDO instead of just focusing on deploying LTE.  Additionally, with MetroPCS, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless all committing to VOLTE it is interesting that Sprint is planning on deploying CDMA 1X Advanced for voice calls.  Sprint must have believed that its CDMA/EVDO networks could be greatly improved with Network Vision and that both these technologies will be around for some time.  Sprint has been successful at finding ways to monetize its old networks, such as offering Boost Mobile prepaid service over its iDEN network.  As postpaid customers move to LTE, Sprint could offer competitively priced but slower data services overs its CDMA/EVDO network to maximize its investment.

The one element that was left out of Network Vision is Clearwire which Sprint owns 54% of the company.  If Clearwire partnered with Sprint, like Lightsquared attempted before all their GPS interference issues, Clearwire’s network consolidation could save a great deal of money for the small carrier.  Clearwire will be upgrading its network to LTE, but it will be based on TD-LTE technology instead of FDD-LTE that all the other US carriers are using.  Clearwire’s 2.5GHz spectrum limits its usefulness to urban areas and the high cell density needed for good coverage makes network expansion expensive.  Clearwire is hoping to sell extra LTE capacity to the major wireless carriers, but using a different LTE technology and a separate frequency band than everyone else will make this difficult. While Sprint’s issues with Clearwire remain, Network Vision is a huge step in the right direction for Sprint.  One complete it will offer much greater voice coverage, improved EVDO performance, and most importantly bring Sprint into the LTE game.

A single dual band antenna supports all three technologies

Femtocells: One Year Later
May 1st, 2011 by Dan Lampie

It has been about a year since I wrote my research paper on femtocells for my master’s degree.  At the time when I wrote the paper, industry analysts were still optimistic in femtocells technology and believed the industry was on the verge of massive growth.  Additionally, data traffic usage was about to explode driven by wide smartphone adoption and faster 4G networks being deployed worldwide.  One year later, the analysts were correct about the massive data growth, but the popularity of femtocells has yet to materialize.  This isn’t to say that wireless providers have lost faith in femtocells; in fact the opposite is true.  2010 saw the release of 3G capable femtocells (the earlier ones were only 2G) from At&t, Sprint-Nextel, and Verizon Wireless.  At CTIA 2011 Sprint-Nextel was proud to announce that it had over 250,000 femtocell users which represents a majority of the total femtocell users in the US.

While Sprint-Nextel might be proud of this accomplishment, a quarter million femtocell users has done little to improve capacity and many Sprint-Nextel customers still live with poor coverage.  As I wrote in my paper, femtocells need to be deployed on a large scale basis to improve capacity and coverage.  Sprint-Nextel’s industry leading penetration is only .5%, where penetration needs to be minimally 10-20% to start seeing gains in capacity.

Capacity is crucial as wireless carriers are investing increasing capital to keep up with growing data demand.  The solution to this is to invest in more advanced wireless technology which lowers the cost to deliver data services to customers.  While this has worked successfully in the past, today’s explosive growth in data services mean that even 4G networks will require substantial investments to keep up with capacity.  This means that the ROI on network infrastructure will diminish, unless a creative solution can be found.

Femtocells like technology can be this solution, but as I wrote in my research paper traditional femtocells will never be the answer.  Traditional femtocells, small boxes similar to Wi-Fi routers are complex, costly to manufacture, and are only compatible with a single wireless carrier.  Femtocell technology needs to utilize Wi-Fi already present at most homes and businesses.  As 4G networks start to implement VOIP based calling such as VOLTE, Wi-Fi offload will be much easier to implement compared to today’s circuit switched based calls.  If the 3GPP and IEEE worked together, seamless and universal LTE to Wi-Fi offload could become a reality.  Wireless carriers need to realize that Wi-Fi is an extremely important technology at their disposal, and a crucial aspect in retaining profitability.  Overall, today’s femtocells will never gain traction in the marketplace, and instead the future is intelligent Wi-Fi offload solutions.

Sprint’s Free 3G Femtocell
Aug 23rd, 2010 by Dan Lampie

Late last week when Sprint-Nextel announced their 3G femtocell, I was taken back.  Sprint decided to change its strategy from charging for femtocells access to instead giving these devices away for free.  Providing free femtocells was the viewpoint I believed was most beneficial for wireless carriers when I discussed this topic in depth in my femtocell research paper.  When the retention of a subscriber cost along with the cost due to additional mobile usage is factored into the equation, in many situations the cost savings to a wireless carriers easily pays for the femtocell hardware.  While Sprint-Nextel probably didn’t use my research, it is good to know that others agree with my findings.  Keeping with similar viewpoints, a recent survey on the Wireless Industry website, FierceWireless.com, asked viewers which technology they believed would be used to offload data traffic in the future.  In my paper I argued that Wi-Fi offloading was the ideal solution once 4G networks were launched, and that femtocells were only a temporarily solution due to their complexity and cost.  Only 24% of respondents believed that femtocells were the solution, further bolstering my findings in my paper.  Until 4G networks are widespread, femtocells are the solution and it will be interesting if other wireless carriers follow in Sprint’s footsteps.

Future of Sprint?
Nov 18th, 2008 by Dan Lampie

Sprint-Nextel’s stock has plummeted in the last year and now can be had for under $3 a share.  The market cap of the company is now under $7 billion and it has been losing money for the last couple of quarters.  Sprint-Nextel has many issues with the largest being the high rate of customers that are leaving for other wireless providers.  While these are large problems that need to be fixed, the net worth of the company without any customers is worth significantly more than its current market cap.  How is this possible?  The answer is the network and spectrum that Sprint-Nextel owns.  Many in the wireless industry believe Sprint-Nextel’s ownership of spectrum in the 1900Mhz and 2.5Ghz bands to be worth easily tens of billions of dollars.  This is just the FCC licenses without the cellular network which would cost many more billions to replicate.  This leaves Sprint-Nextel as an exceptional buy for any company wanting to get into the wireless arena.  The wireless arena will continue to be the hot ticket far into the future as today’s generation expects the Internet to be mobile.  It would be much cheaper for a company such as Google to buy Sprint-Nextel than to deploy its own network.  While the world economy is just beginning its journey through a black hole which will probably last many years, the opportunity to pick up a company at a fraction of its value in a high growth and evolving industry is very very rare.


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