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4G World: Sprint says it remains committed to unlimited smartphone data


Chicago -- Though Sprint is reining in its latop modem and mobile hotspot data users, Sprint has no plans to foist tiered or throttled data plans on its smartphone customers, Bob Azzi, Sprint senior vice president of network said today in an interview at 4G World.

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Unlimited smartphone data has become a key retention factor for its current customers, a critical lure for new customers and Sprint’s primary differentiator from its competitors, Azzi said. Ensuring that Sprint’s EV-DO and future LTE networks can operationally support unlimited smartphone has become one of his engineering team’s primary missions, Azzi said.

“[Unlimited smartphone data] is obviously a very strategic and important product,” Azzi said. “There’s no thinking from us to move to throttling data or move to a tiered structure. That’s just not in our DNA.”

Last week Sprint revealed it would shut off the spigot in November on unlimited data for its WiMAX modem and hotspot plans, introducing a tiered pricing structure that would force customers into 3 GB, 5 GB or 10 GB plans (CP: Sprint eliminates unlimited data for hotspots, dongles).

Sprint faces increasing pressure as its wellspring of spectrum and 4G capacity has started drying up. Clearwire is no longer expanding the capacity and coverage of its WiMAX network, effectively implementing a capacity ceiling on Sprint’s mobile data usage. Though Sprint will launch LTE next year, that network will have half the capacity of the LTE deployments of AT&T or Verizon, both of which have already instituted tiered data (CP: Sprint strikes out on its own with LTE). Furthermore, Sprint just started selling the iPhone, which could place strains on its EV-DO network (CP: A tale of two Sprints: Can Sprint really go it alone?).

But Azzi said that Sprint is well positioned to support unlimited data—to the smartphone—at least into the future. While he confirmed that Sprint’s LTE network will be 5 MHz-by-5 MHz, compared to VZW and AT&Ts’ 10x10 MHz configurations, Azzi pointed out that both those operators have double Sprint’s subscribers. Capacity will not be an issue initially, Azzi said, and when it does Sprint will be in a good position to address it. If LightSquared receives permission to build its network, Sprint will gain access to its network gaining the equivalent of a new 5x5 MHz carrier of capacity.

As Sprint phases more data customers to LTE and moves into the 800 MHz spectrum occupied by its iDEN network today, it will be able to throw up more 5x5 MHz carriers, Azzi said. And while Sprint will stop selling new WiMAX devices at the end of 2012, it will still have access to Clearwire’s network for the foreseeable future so it can support its legacy WiMAX customers, Azzi said. Sprint could conceivably tap more WiMAX capacity or even access its time-division LTE network if Clearwire succeeds in getting it built, Azzi said.

What’s more, once any new spectrum becomes available—either through partnership, acquisition or repurposing—Sprint can launch EV-DO and LTE over those frequencies quickly, Azzi said. Sprint’s Network Vision platform gives it a flexible software-defined radio architecture, allowing it to allocate resources between different technologies without any infrastructure overhauls, Azzi said.

While Sprint “would love to have more spectrum,” Azzi said that Sprint has the network platform and business model in place to keep supporting unlimited data for its smartphone customers well into the future.

At a breakfast analyst event this morning, Sprint revealed more details of its forthcoming LTE rollout and on how it planned to manage the delicate balancing act between its multiple network technologies. In addition to confirming that it would initially deploy LTE in 5 MHz-by-5 MHz carrier, Sprint said it would not have to harvest any of its current CDMA 1X and EV-DO carriers to build it. Sprint will use nationwide G-block PCS spectrum, which today is free and clear. The remaining 20 MHz it has on average nationwide will be designated for voice and 3G data, though Sprint vice president of engineering and development Iyad Tarazi said that the operator would jigger the number of carriers devoted to 1X and EV-DO.

By virtue of the new Network Vision architecture, Sprint will have access to the latest CDMA technology, CDMA 1X Advanced and EV-DO Advanced, Tarazi said. 1X Advanced can support twice as many call sessions on a single carrier as legacy 1X technologies, which Tarazi said would allow Sprint to consolidate its voice carriers. It can then reallocate that spectrum to EV-DO Rev. A carriers. Sprint will not only get more 3G carriers out of Vision to support the iPhone and other EV-DO data devices, those carriers will be more efficient due to new EV-DO Advanced technologies, Tarazi said.

As Sprint is able to move more customers from EV-DO to LTE and wind down the iDEN network, it will deploy another 5x5 MHz LTE carrier by 2013, though it won’t have the contiguous spectrum to deploy a full 10x10 carrier like VZW and AT&T. However, Sprint plans to take advantage of carrier aggregation techniques available in the new LTE-Advanced standard. By bonding those two carriers together, Sprint will be able to match Verizon and AT&T’s LTE speeds, Tarazi said.

Sprint also plans to launch some version of voice-over-LTE in 2013, though its aim isn’t an immediate transition to VoIP. It will take advantage of the IP channels enhanced multimedia capabilities to augment certain voice service. As voice quality and reliability on the LTE network starts matching that of its circuit-switched 1X network, Sprint will begin a much bigger transition to an all VoIP service. That said Tarazi said he expects 1X to be a major component of the Sprint architecture for another 10 years.


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