Spectrum Is Key to Sprint Partnership

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The landmark wireless partnership between Sprint Nextel Corp. and four big cable companies is supposed to give those operators a competitive boost by combining wireless phone service with existing voice, video and data services over cable, beginning next year.

But the lasting impact of the deal with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Advance/Newhouse Communications could lie in Sprint’s pieces of 2.5-Gigahertz spectrum, which will enable the joint venture to provide wireless applications — such as Internet video streaming — to new consumer devices at 10 Megabits per second or faster.

Cable, of course, offers wireline data services, tiered in the 3 Megabit-per-second to 8 Mbps range. That’s enough for high-speed broadband Internet connections and voice-over-Internet protocol services on cable’s wireline plant.

WHAT SPRINT HAS NOW

Both Sprint Nextel’s Sprint PCS and Nextel units have offered phone service and, more recently, EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) services capable of data services at speed approaching 2 Mbps, comparable to cable’s lower-end broadband efforts.

Sprint has launched EVDO services in 141 markets, a figure that will reach 220 markets by early next year. Business and consumer users can plug an EVDO card into their personal computers and attain broadband data speeds while mobile, via the same Sprint network that handles voice calls.

Evolution Data Optimized service can be used for wireless e-mail, Internet access and video. The pay-as-you-go service is priced at $40 a month for 40 Mbps consumed. There is also a $59.99 a month unlimited-usage plan.

That’s just a precursor to creating services using the 2.5-Gigahertz spectrum that Sprint Nextel owns. The spectrum has allure for both Sprint and its new cable partners, because it allows all parties to offer quality video over a broadband wireless connection.

“It’s a huge difference over what’s possible now,” said David Zufall, vice president of architecture strategy in Sprint’s technology department. “You can have more robust graphics, highly interactive communications, gaming, better video conferencing.”

Indeed, with 10 Mbps of capacity, Sprint and the cable MSOs can replicate a consumer’s in-home high-speed data experience — and perhaps even their cable-television experience — on a mobile device. That, of course, is the idea.

“As we look to cable, they bring broadband in a fixed environment,” Zufall. “But consumers are in different places all the time and they want access to the same services.”

ACCUMULATED VIA AUCTION

Sprint Nextel has accumulated 2.5 GHz of spectrum in the many of the markets they operate in. That bandwidth was acquired via federal government auctions held over the years.

The company, created from the merger of Sprint Corp. and Nextel Communications Inc. earlier this year, now has 2.5-GHz licenses covering 85% of the top 100 markets.

“We had a little spectrum in little markets,” Zufall said. “We’ve got enough now that can put together a nice footprint.”

At the moment, Sprint is cataloging the spectrum in each market, trying to determine which technology platform to use to launch services in the 2.5-GHz band. “There are a limited number of technologies that are available,” he said. “We’re going through each one, modeling differences, performance, whether we use old towers or new towers.”

With the Nextel merger, Sprint effectively doubled its tower count from 20,000 to 40,000.

One technology path would be to follow the natural evolutions of Sprint’s current code-division multiple access (CDMA) platform.

“We are considering options which would allow us to develop affordable multi-mode devices which would enable nationwide broadband services spanning data optimization and 2.5 technology,” Zufall said. “This is in addition to single-mode 2.5 products, which would operate in metro areas where 2.5 was deployed.”

WIMAX IS AN OPTION

A second option is to use WiMax technology, a platform that is being pushed by Intel Corp., which plans to make WiMax chips for mobile devices. Proponents of WiMax believe the technology can deliver speeds of 30 Mbps, but Sprint says those numbers are only theoretical until the technology is tested.

Another option for Sprint is the HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) platform, which many European wireless carriers use. But that is based on different architecture than Sprint’s current CDMA technology, which means new HSDPA phones would not work on the present network.

There’s no rush to make a decision, though. As part of the auction requirements set forth by the Federal Communications Commission, Sprint has four years to develop a marketable mobile broadband service.

No matter what final technology decision Sprint makes, the goal will be to create new broadband applications as well as services that can be seamlessly handed off between its network and cable’s Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification platform.

The intent of the cable joint venture is that the cable companies and Sprint will jointly develop 2.5 services.

“We can do 2.5 without cable partners,” Zufall said, “but the agreement contemplates leveraging that the companies will work together to explore business plans for next generation services, including Sprint’s 2.5 Ghz licenses to deliver new and innovative products.”

Cable, of course, continues to build on DOCSIS.

“They’ve got specific technology, DOCSIS 3.0, for instance, with high bit rates over fiber,” Zufall said. “We’re developing services that will work over any access.”

New technology that allow for greater broadband speeds, however, is just one intersection point contemplated in the Sprint-cable deal. A second, more simple application would mix the wireless and wireline platform, “handing off” calls.

“The simplest is two different IP connections and both go to an application server, where you get at the same types of information from both networks,” Zufall said.

Once that joint connection is established, voice-service password authentication could occur for the cell phone or cable network.

For instance, service could move from Sprint’s network to a cable connection in the home, saving the wireless carrier valuable backbone space.

“If we’re looking to be able to hand off calls in a building or home, those are technologies we have in our labs,” Zufall said. “There is a variety of technologies that exist” to do such IP mobility.

“Mobile IP is great for data mobility, but the hard work is for voice mobility,” Zufall warned. “You do you lose packets. You need to be at 100 milliseconds.”

NEED CHIPSET IN PHONE

To shift phone calls from the cell phone network to a home’s DOCSIS-based cable infrastructure, the homeowner’s phone would require a built-in 802.11 chipset.

“We can integrate at the physical layer,” Zufall said. The key is getting 802.11 chipsets into home phones.

The cell phone would automatically recognize the 802.11 access point and transfer the call to that network, just as it transfer calls from cell tower to cell tower as person talks on the phone while traveling in a car.

“It’s just like a handoff,” Zufall said. “You establish a new connection.”

Zufall said most current phones don’t have 802.11 chip sets, although some manufacturers are talking about such features in new phones.

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