Sprint to Launch LTE Service in Early 2012

Sprint Nextel (NYS: S) hopes to launch LTE service on its own network sometime early next year, according to a CNET report.

The report, which cited unnamed sources familiar with the matter, said that the nation's No. 3 carrier plans to have the service operational on its own equipment in the first or second quarter, though that launch schedule could be moved up. The report also said that Sprint has been field testing LTE equipment and that it's unclear how many markets will get LTE service initially. Interestingly, the report said Sprint plans to use D-Block 700 MHz spectrum it acquired from Nextel for the deployment as well as 800 MHz spectrum currently being used by Sprint's iDEN network. Sprint has previously said it plans to start shutting down iDEN service in 2013.

A Sprint spokesman declined to comment.

The deployment would be part of Sprint's Network Vision network modernization plan, which is already underway, and which is centered around multi-mode base stations that would allow Sprint to launch LTE. Sprint is scheduled to detail its 4G network strategy at an investor conference in New York Oct. 7.

Earlier this year though, Steve Elfman, Sprint's president of network operations and wholesale, said that the company could have LTE coverage nationwide by year-end 2013. However, that timeline was based on the notion that Sprint would launch LTE service sometime this year.

Sprint's 4G strategy has been uncertain for months, which is why the investor conference should serve as a clarifying moment. In July Sprint inked a 15-year, $9 billion network hosting deal with wholesale LTE provider LightSquared in which LightSquared will pay Sprint to deploy and operate a nationwide LTE network that uses LightSquared's L-Band spectrum, and LightSquared will be able to sell network capacity via the arrangement to Sprint, other wireless carriers or retail customers. However, because of GPS interference concerns, both the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration have called for more tests of LightSquared's network, throwing into doubt if or when the company will be able to launch service.

Complicating matters further is Sprint's relationship with Clearwire (NAS: CLWR) , which currently operates a mobile WiMAX network covering more than 130 million POPs. Sprint holds a 54 percent stake in Clearwire and is its largest wholesale customer. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said earlier this month at an investor conference that Sprint will likely discuss whether it will give Clearwire more funding at Sprint's October meeting.

Clearwire CEO Erik Prusch said last week the company is talking with multiple wireless carriers about selling capacity on its 4G network, which may be a way for the cash-strapped company to secure more funding as it tries to deploy an LTE-Advanced network of its own. Clearwire has said it will need around $600 million in additional financing for the LTE buildout and that a network overlay for TDD LTE can be completed within 12 months. The CNET report said that Sprint's LTE network would be based on FDD LTE, just as AT&T Mobility (NYS: T) and Verizon Wireless (NYS: VZ) have done, but that Sprint will deploy devices with chips that support both flavors of LTE, allowing Clearwire devices to run on Sprint's network.

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