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Sprint: Still Going Beyond 3G

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) says its next-generation, mobile multimedia network is still on track, on time, and it will happen -- even as the carrier is plowing through a sea of radio access technologies in the meantime.

Sprint officials say they expect to reach "no less than 15 million Americans" via a new network that uses the carrier's 2.5GHz spectrum, by the middle of 2009. The network will deliver "average downlink throughput rates… of 2Mbps to 4Mbps" per customer. Think cable modem speeds, but fully mobile. (See Sprint Nextel Preps Wireless BB.)

A recent conversation with the carrier's VP of innovative technologies, Ali Tabassi, tells Light Reading that the tech trials are still going on as planned. "I believe that we can complete our analysis… so that we can make a technology selection and vendor selection sometime late this year," Tabassi says. [Ed. note: Still no word on who runs Sprint's non-innovative technologies.]

That would put market trials in late 2007 and early 2008, giving the carrier plenty of time to make its stated goal.

The details of that network plan, first published in an FCC order relating to its merger with Nextel last year, also reveal that the carrier intends to reach another 15 million Americans -- for a total of 30 million reached -- by 2011.

But, as stated earlier, Sprint is still evaluating several technologies it may use to pull this off, including Samsung's WiBro; IPWireless's high-speed, time-division duplex (TDD) data system; Flash-OFDM equipment from Flarion Technologies Inc. (now Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)); and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s MOTOWi4, to name a few. (See Sprint Preps WiBro Trial, Nextel Trials IPWireless, Nextel Flashes With Flarion, and Moto Touts Mobile WiMax Plans.)

Tabassi says the Flash-OFDM trials have been among the most impressive so far. He says customers were experiencing download speeds averaging 800 Kbit/s and uplink speeds of 300 Kbit/s.

While the technology search is going on, Sprint is busy testing out possible applications on the 2.5GHz band. Last month, Sprint introduced a service at NASCAR races called FanView. The service consists of a rented multimedia handheld device that carries locally broadcast voice, video, and data that's developed specially for the race and is transmitted on the carrier's 2.5GHz spectrum.

With the FanView device, racing enthusiasts can enjoy the race telecast, up to seven in-car camera channels, direct audio feeds from the racing teams, and the radio broadcast, too. Tabassi says the FanView service is a kind of precursor to what Sprint believe will someday be possible on its mobile networks all over the U.S.

"One of our visions for this next-generation technology is to have embedded devices in the consumer electronics space," Tabassi tells Light Reading.

Tabassi points out that the latest PSP (PlayStation Portable) system is WiFi capable. And he expects that a whole range of devices -- cameras, games, iPods, etc. -- will soon have the ability to connect and interact with Sprint's broadband, mobile multimedia network.

In the meantime, Sprint will have to IMS-enable the rest of its optical network and significantly update its backhaul technologies.

Sprint's core network is evolving as well, he says. "IMS is important for any operator to be more agile and offer different applications and services with the least amount of change in the core network and the least amount of change in the back office and operational support systems," Tabassi says.

"I think it is a path that is require for operators to be capable of reducing some of the headaches that they have when they have to offer new applications and services."

His praise of IMS falls right in line with what other carriers have said regarding their deployment and application plans. (See Carriers on IMS: Fear, Uncertainty & No Doubt.)

Of course, Sprint's been talking up a network that's "beyond 3G" for quite some time. Even as far back as 2002, Sprint was talking about "XG," the next evolution of 3G. And that was before it had deployed anything remotely 3G. (See Sprint Targets New G Spot.)

"What they're talking about now is approximately in line with what the rest of the market is talking about," says Heavy Reading analyst Patrick Donegan. "But, that said, the market tends to miss its goals by two or three years at a time."

— Phil Harvey, News Editor, Light Reading

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