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Sprint: We'll Beat AT&T to 3G Femto

Michelle Donegan
LR Mobile News Analysis
Michelle Donegan

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) says it will be the first operator to launch a 3G femtocell in the United States, Unstrung can reveal.

"Just like Sprint was the first with 2G, we'll definitely be the first in the 3G space as well," Mathew Oommen, VP of device and technology development (effectively the CTO), tells Unstrung. "We're not talking about trials; we're talking about full commercial service."

The operator's claims follow AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s plans to deploy its standalone 3G femtocell nationwide by the end of this year. (See AT&T on Track for Femto Launch.)

So, the race is on to be first to have 3G femtos as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless attempt to extend their mobile networks into their customers' homes to fix indoor coverage problems [ed. note: and at their customers' expense, too].

The significance of this who-will-be-first issue is that with 3G femtos -- whether HSDPA or, in Sprint's case, CDMA EV-DO Rev. A -- customers can get, not only better voice coverage, but also better data performance on their cellphones at home. And operators are keen to make sure customers can use their mobile data packages while at home.

Oommen says Sprint will be first, but he doesn't say when the 3G femtocell would arrive. And he isn't giving away details about the device, including suppliers, price, and service plans.

However, he indicates that Sprint plans to have more than one 3G femto and intends to have a device suited for enterprises as well. The operator also plans for the 3G femtocells to be part of its open device initiative, according to Oommen. (See Sprint Takes Femtos Wholesale.)

So who are the suppliers likely to be? Samsung Corp. must be in the running since it supplies Sprint's current 2G CDMA femto, called the Airave. Other contenders would be Airvana Inc. -- its 3G femto module is integrated into Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s femtocell digital picture frame, and it has a partnership with Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) for CDMA femto systems -- and AirWalk Communications Inc. (See Sprint Goes Femto, Airvana: 'Betting the Farm' on Femto, AlcaLu Teams for 3G CDMA Femtocells, AirWalk Unveils Its Enterprise Femto , CTIA 2009: Device Preview, and Femtocells Kick Apps.)

Sprint's CDMA competitor, Verizon, which also offers a 2G femto called the Verizon Network Extender, remains vague about a possible 3G femto. In an emailed reply to Unstrung's questions, a spokeswoman writes: "We've not announced plans for a 3G femtocell but we typically upgrade all of our devices to reflect newer technology." (See Verizon Intros Femtocell.)

Sprint was indeed the first to launch a 2G CDMA femto when it unveiled the Airave in September 2007. And the operator says customers have had a good experience. (See Sprint Goes Femto.)

"Femtocells have increased customer satisfaction… [We] have consistently seen customers give us positive feedback on coverage and overall experience," Oommen says. "That translates into retention of customers.

"We believe we have a lead in this process. We believe that from a commercial deployment standpoint, we will still be the leader in commercial 3G deployment."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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