How Is T1 Like a Pizza?

While Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) starts to roll out WiMax in Chicago and Washington, D.C. at the end of 2007, it's also considering using the wireless technology as a cost-effective way of providing backhaul for the new broadband networks.

Ali Afrashteh, VP of access technologies for Sprint Nextel, expanded on the reasons behind the carrier's move to WiMax and how the technology also forms part of its strategy to move to "alternative" methods for linking wireless networks to wired switching centers at the jam-packed "Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators" Light Reading Live show in New York on Thursday afternoon.

The VP told the crowd at the Westin Hotel in Times Square that Sprint Nextel, the third largest wireless operator in the U.S., is currently using T1 lines for 99 percent of its backhaul tasks.

"T1 is like pizza -- you order it, you get it," Afrashteh said, running with the metaphor. "The problem is, you order it for dinner and you get it for lunch next day, it's cold, there's no topping, and there's only one store you can get it from -- and that's Pizza Hut."

Sprint Nextel is already planning to use its dominance in the 2.5GHz spectrum band -- the operator has 85 percent of the band in the 100 top markets in the U.S. -- to provide high-speed WiMax services across the country by the end of 2008. Afrashteh says that Sprint is very interested at looking at using the technology for backhaul as well. "Alternative backhaul is important to us," he says.

All of this could eventually translate into prices for mobile data services for enterprise users that rival those of wired services. "There's a limit to what people will pay for mobility," says Afrashteh.

Putting in WiMax backhaul for its so-called "4G" technology could also translate into cost savings for its legacy cellular networks over time. "Absolutely, whatever we use for our 4G we can use for iDEN and CDMA, that's part of our plan and that's how we save -- eventually," says Afrashteh.

Afrashteh stressed that WiMax isn't the only alternative that the operator is considering. A good portion of his presentation and nearly all of the questions from the crowd, however, focused on the wireless metropolitan area standard.

It was also clear from the executive's presentation that Sprint hasn't quite settled on how exactly it will use WiMax as a backhaul technology in the field yet. Initially, Afrashteh says, the carrier is looking at using 802.16d fixed WiMax -- possibly modified to reduce packet jitter and delay -- alongside its mobile network. It may, however, move to 802.16e if the price drops as manufacturing volumes ramp up.

The company has also been examining using mesh for both access and backhaul on the same network. "We are testing mesh in Houston, we're doing it in Virginia, we're doing it in Kansas City," he says.

Whatever happens the company is hoping to move -- albeit gradually -- away from its T1 habit in the next five years. Afrashteh says he wants to have 10 to 20 percent WiMax backhaul in the mix by then -- "Particularly in the larger markets."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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