Sprint may consider partnering with
regional wireless providers on LTE through network sharing and spectrum hosting
arrangements, according to a top network executive.
The potential tie-ups could look similar
to Sprint’s former spectrum hosting deal, LightSquared, which took advantage of
the flexible equipment Sprint is using for its network modernization
“That’s a scenario we’re interested
in doing,” said Bob Azzi, senior vice president of the Sprint Network, when
asked if Sprint shared the Rural Cellular Association’s vision for
collaboration between its larger members and smaller members on LTE deployment
– a vision that includes spectrum hosting and sharing.
“We do see opportunities with that kind
of architecture where you could do some combined radio technologies and
spectrum bands,” Azzi said, referring to the revamped architecture it is
currently rolling out for LTE.
Sprint signed on to the RCA just last spring, and T-Mobile USA and Cricket
Communications became members only this month. Azzi made his comments ahead of
a Thursday keynote address at the RCA’s spring conference in Orlando, where he
plans to discuss Sprint’s upgrades and the challenges and opportunities
operators face in deploying LTE.
Cooperation between the RCA’s regional
and national members could expand under a push from President and CEO Steve
Berry, who recently told Wireless Week that the addition of the top-tier
operators “will bring more collaborative opportunities” on LTE
Azzi emphasized that there is a lot to
work out before Sprint will be ready to formalize a deal.
“There are a lot of ideas to
explore, and we are happy to be participating in those discussions with anyone
willing to have them… but it’s a long way from that to ‘yes, we have an
agreement, yes, we have a business model, yes, we have a way forward’,”
Sprint is using a combination of its own
1900 MHz and Clearwire’s TD-LTE service in the 2.5 GHz band for its LTE
service. Many RCA members hold 700 MHz spectrum for LTE, and AWS spectrum also has
come into play.
The spectrum fragmentation in U.S. LTE
networks adds technical difficulties to what would already be a complex business arrangement.
Sprint is no stranger to working with
third parties – it has long depended on Clearwire for WiMAX service and plans
to again collaborate with the company for LTE – but its use of multiple network
technologies has concerned investors.
Bernstein Research recently questioned
how competitive Sprint’s LTE network could be, warning that an LTE-capable
iPhone that performed poorly on its network could push the cash-poor company
into bankruptcy. Sprint has less spectrum to devote to LTE than its larger
Many RCA members have struggled to get
their LTE networks off the ground as AT&T and Verizon Wireless are moving
aggressively with their own deployments. For instance, C Spire Wireless pushed out
the launch date of its LTE network to September, nine months later than it
One of the key hurdles for some RCA
members is finding equipment and devices that work with their 700 MHz spectrum,
which is often in a different band class than the airwaves held by AT&T and
Verizon. The different band classes aren’t interoperable, negatively affecting
economies of scale, and it has been difficult for some providers to secure
equipment and devices tailored to their unique holdings, the RCA reports.
The lack of interoperability also means
LTE devices can’t roam between networks. Roaming is critical for providers that
lack the financial resources and spectrum for a nationwide network, and its
absence remains a hindrance to LTE deployments. The FCC recently began a rulemaking proceeding
on the lack of interoperability, but it could be awhile before it issues formal
Sprint’s willingness to partner on LTE
could be a leg up to regional and rural carriers that are trying to find feasible
ways to launch their next-generation mobile broadband service. Some RCA members
had signed up for LightSquared’s wholesale LTE service, only to see their
go-to-market strategy crumble because of problems with GPS interference.