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Update: Sprint embraces WiMAX


Sprint today revealed it has selected Mobile WiMAX as the technology to power its next-generation “4G” mobile broadband networks, announcing both Motorola and Samsung as its major infrastructure vendors.

Sprint CEO Gary Forsee said it would invest between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in 2007 and 2008 to building out a nationwide Mobile WiMAX network. The network will use both Motorola and Samsung network infrastructure, along with Motorola multi-mode handsets and access devices, and will be powered by technology partner Intel’s next-generation 802.16e Centrino chip. The network footprint will cover 100 million people in 2008, Forsee added.

The announcement puts to rest years of speculation over what Sprint would do with its accumulated 2.5 GHz spectrum.Sprint settled on three candidates: Qualcomm’s Flarion-developed orthogonal frequency division multiplexing access (OFDMA) technology, IPWireless’s UMTS-based time division-CDMA technology, and WiMAX.

Sprint Chief Technology Officer and newly appointed president of 4G broadband Barry West said Sprint picked Mobile WiMAX because it meets all four basic criteria: its major vendor ecosystem, its conformation to the characteristics of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum, its high coverage and performance, and most significantly its time to market. West said WiMAX fits perfectly with Sprint’s aggressive rollout plans, giving it a market advantage over carriers deploying other mobile broadband solutions.

“If there is one thing I like to do, it’s beat our competitors to market,” West said.

West said he was impressed with both Qualcomm and IPWireless’ technologies but neither of them met all of Sprint’s full criteria. The Flarion OFDMA infrastructure had extremely high performance, but it was only adapted for 1.25 MHz channels in a frequency division duplexing (FDD) deployment scenario, West said. Meanwhile Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum is more suited toward larger channels and a time division duplexing (TDD) deployment, which would allow Sprint to allocate more capacity to the downlink.

Sprint considered IPWireless because of its position on the migration path to long-term evolution (LTE), the 3rd Generation Partnership Project’s own 4G standard. West said he felt that IPWireless’ TD-CDMA technology was between standards, ahead of the current UMTS technologies today, but fully realizing the LTE standard of the future. Furthermore as a small company with only a few OEM partners, IPWireless didn’t have the technology ecosystem it needed to support a massive deployment, West said. Sprint also looked into UMTS high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) technologies, but rejected it because it wanted to deploy the next-generation of mobile broadband, not the current. It conversely rejected LTE technologies because they are too far from realization, West said, noting they would not be commercially available until 2010 to 2012.

Mobile WiMAX, on the other hand, fit Sprint’s spectrum requirements perfectly, West said, supporting large channels and adapted for TDD deployments. It has a huge global ecosystem, a fully backed standard from the IEEE and a certification body in the WiMAX Forum. Its performance is ideal, West said, supporting initially 2 bits per hertz and later 5 bits per hertz, and its development path fits perfectly with Sprint’s deployment timeline.

The announcement is of huge significance to its primary vendors Motorola, though for different reasons. For Samsung, the deal is its first major wireless infrastructure deal in the U.S. after years of trying to break the deadlock Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks hold on the domestic CDMA infrastructure market. For Motorola, the deal virtually seals Motorola’s position as one of the world’s leading WiMAX vendors and certainly the dominant WiMAX power in the U.S.

“We truly believe that in a couple of years we’ll look back at this day and know where this truly started,” said Motorola CEO Ed Zander. “This is the culmination of everything we’ve been trying to achieve in the last couple of years.”

With its recently announced deal with Clearwire and Intel Motorola has a lock on the two most significant Mobile WiMAX contracts in the U.S. In fact, collectively Clearwire and Sprint own the majority of the 2.3 GHz and 2.5 GHz licenses in the U.S., which are the only U.S. spectrum bands so far identified for commercial WiMAX use.

Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum has laid dormant for years, ever since it retried its Integrated On-Demand (ION) and multichannel multipoint distribution service (MMDS) plans in 2001. Since then Nextel’s acquisition of the former WorldCom’s license portfolio and Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel made it the largest holder of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the country.

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