Sprint could dramatically improve its spectrum position if its bid to acquire the rest of Clearwire goes through. But while that plays out, the nation’s third largest carrier has been busy bolstering its airwaves by decommissioning its push-to-talk iDEN network in the 800 MHz frequency and preparing it for a new life broadcasting voice and LTE. Wireless Week recently spoke with John Harrison, Sprint’s vice president of network deployment, and Kelly Schlageter, manager of network PR, to get an update of how the process is going and when that spectrum will be reborn.
Wireless Week: How’s the iDEN network decommission coming along?
John Harrison: It’s coming along very well. As you probably are aware we have a two-phased approach to turning down the iDEN network. We started last year with what we called the thinning phase, which were primarily capacity-related cell sites that we no longer needed.
That was the first phase and it’s going very well. Then phase two, which will be the bulk of the shutdown, will happen by the end of the second quarter of 2013.
WW: Has it gone as smoothly as you anticipated?
Harrison: It’s gone very well. I’ll just take you through the life cycle of turning down a cell site. It follows a pretty simple process on the front end. First thing is we power it down from an RF perspective so that the cell site’s no longer emitting radio frequencies and so customers can no longer see the cell site. So everything’s still there, the equipment’s still there, it still has commercial power, still has TelCo, but we basically wilt the cell site. That’s the first step. Second step is that we come back and shut down the commercial power so we get the immediate savings from the commercial power perspective. Third step then is we issue the TelCo disconnect order so that we remove the backhaul, so we get the savings there. Then we go into a landlord negotiation and/or notification process depending on the terms in our lease, to actually terminate the lease. Once that process is complete, then we actually go in to remove the equipment and that could either be ground-mount equipment or tower equipment, just depending on the provisions in our particular lease. Then once the equipment’s removed we go through the equipment disposal process. In the thinning phase of the process, with all of those milestones I just referenced, we’re either on schedule or ahead of schedule. We’re happy with how it’s going.
WW: How soon will that spectrum be available for LTE deployment?
Harrison: A portion of the spectrum is actually already available for voice. We’re deploying voice on 800 [MHz] currently and that’ll continue through the year. And then by fourth quarter we’ll begin to migrate LTE for 800 service.
WW: How big of an impact will that have on Sprint’s overall LTE footprint?
Harrison: Both on voice side and the LTE side it’ll have a huge impact. Obviously on the voice side anytime that we can use 800 [MHz] services to either improve our footprint or reduce any dependency on roaming where we don’t have spectrum, then that’s a huge benefit. Of course on the LTE side that will be equally beneficial.
Kelly Schlageter: John’s referring to in-footprint coverage. I don’t believe it’s going to extend our footprint past where it is today. It’s going fill-in and particularly enhance in-building coverage.
Harrison: Right, just because of the propagation characteristics of 800.
WW: From an end-user standpoint, how has the shutdown of the iDEN network been received?
Harrison: We were pleasantly surprised with the low number of customer care tickets we received in the shutdown process, which really is a testament to the RF team and the selection process they went through in picking the thin sites. I was concerned with the number of sites we were shutting down. I was expecting potentially more customer complaints, but the number of customer-related issues during the thinning process was very low.
Schlageter: Obviously the conversions have to happen, we have to get customers off the network before we can turn it down. But we have some encouraging numbers around customers that were migrating over to CDMA and the retention rates of those customers. Our competitors have comparable push-to-talk offerings but we’re really retaining a good number of those customers. I think that speaks well to the way the thinning went and the kind of commitment to Sprint a lot of these customers have. What’s left to migrate are some of our larger push-to-talk customers and we’re working with them on a case-by-case basis, developing solutions that will be meaningful for their particular business.