The carrier has faced network migration issues in the past and could still be facing another big challenge in the future.
Whereas coherence in network technology migration is of crucial strategic importance for wireless carriers, Sprint Nextel remains unsettlingly bifurcated. Its 4G migration path is supposedly still through its 56 percent Clearwire shareholding and WiMAX network partnership. There are also rumors Sprint might implement EV-DO Rev B and LTE. Meanwhile, it remains unclear about how and when to retire iDEN.
Until 2005, with its acquisition of Nextel and its iDEN network, Sprint prided itself on the purity of its alldigital PCS network using CDMA technology. Things have been muddled and inefficient ever since.
Migration from cdmaOne to CDMA2000 1X early last decade was straightforward. Sprint wavered at the next step with a preference for EV-DV over EV-DO, but changed its mind in the nick of time and joined the mainstream with the EV-DO technology that has prevailed ever since. As a Yankee Group analyst at the time of Sprint’s merger with Nextel, I wrote that “until a robust alternative to iDEN’s PTT (push-to-talk) on CDMA2000 is available, Sprint will need to load and grow the iDEN network as aggressively as ever.”
Among other observations, I also predicted that Sprint would need to maintain the iDEN network well beyond 2010, rather than decommission it rapidly, as many observers expected. So it came to pass, whereas TDMA networks were swiftly converted to GSM and WCDMA technology, Sprint still has not figured out how to migrate the subscriber base so it can eventually close down its iDEN network. Instead, iDEN customers have defected in their droves to competitors and the iDEN business has limped along. Sprint has even flirted unsuccessfully with the possibility of spinning off the Nextel business, including its moribund iDEN network.
DOUBLE OR QUITS
It is a major diversion for Sprint to be plowing its scarce capital into Clearwire with billions already spent. Having Sprint’s long-term network migration tied up with something in which it only owns 56 percent is inefficient. It should head for full ownership or exit. If it sticks with Clearwire, as is, it will probably be the only carrier of significance still pursuing the CDMA-to-WiMAX transition. If Sprint sells out from Clearwire or switches Clearwire’s technology to LTE, Sprint will then face a new network migration challenge, albeit the most common one for CDMA and GSM/HSPA carriers alike.
The introduction of the HTC Evo 4G will help reveal how competitive the CDMA with WiMAX combination is in the major and strategically critical smartphone category. It is no surprise that the first WiMAX phone is a battery drainer. Sandwiching uncommon pairings of network technologies has been problematic historically. For example, in the switch from TDMA to GSM, Cingular offered a couple of dual-mode technology “GAIT” phone models. These were clunky and costly for carriers, due to very small sales volumes totaling a few million and were inferior in terms of features and functions for subscribers versus massmarket single-mode GSM or TDMA phones.
The Evo looks impressive at face value, but what about handover and how much subsidy does it require in comparison to other Android devices that can be sold in near identical form for use on dozens of networks worldwide? How many more crossbreed models will follow? One or two popular phones are not enough for a wireless carrier. Success is significantly a function of having lots of leading devices on offer. There’s still no CDMA iPhone. How long will it take before there’s one that combines CDMA and WiMAX? Rather longer than for one that supports CDMA and LTE or HSPA and LTE, I suspect.
Sprint has denied the recent rumor that it will implement EV-DO Rev B. However, this would be a modest upgrade that could help delay the day of reckoning on WiMAX versus LTE by improving the performance and extending the life of its CDMA network. Perhaps Sprint is set to make a more radical decision?
COEXISTENCE OR COLLAPSE FOR WIMAX?
WiMAX’s position is being challenged. While I was chairing the keynote session at the LTE World Summit in Amsterdam recently, Kevin Packingham, vice president of product and technology development at Sprint, mentioned a request for proposal for a “next generation network” for Sprint. Sprint does not regard LTE as being mutually exclusive with WiMAX. Sprint uses paired spectrum, primarily at 1900 MHz for CDMA and at 800 MHz for iDEN. WiMAX technology is dedicated to unpaired spectrum, using 2.5 GHz at Clearwire.
WiseHarbor’s new mobile broadband forecast predicts the rise of FD-LTE in paired spectrum, as used by GSM, CDMA and HSPA, and of TD-LTE in unpaired bands where WiMAX currently dominates. Subsequently announced intentions to deploy TD-LTE, by winners of unpaired spectrum in the Indian broadband wireless auctions, reinforce these findings. This development intensifies pressure on the WiMAX ecosystem and will hasten WiMAX’s eventual decline, previously forecasted by WiseHarbor to follow peak device sales in 2015.
Mallinson is founder of WiseHarbor, solving commercial problems in wireless and mobile communications, www.wiseharbor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Details of the above mentioned devices forecast are at www.wiseharbor.com/forecast.html.