What's Up with Sprint?Wednesday, May 07, 2008
The latest news is that Sprint Nextel and Clearwire have announced a new partnership worth, according to the press, about $12 billion. This partnership starts out with investments from Google, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel and Bright House Networks. According to one report, this gives a huge boost to Sprint in its battle with rivals AT&T and Verizon (?). I have also heard that Deutsche Telekom is interested in buying Sprint, as is an Asian operator and, of course, the rumor that Nextel is to be spun off again and this time a group will try to raise money to make it the nationwide public safety radio system.
The new CEO's head must be spinning. On top of all this, Sprint was just handed a defeat in court, which means it may have to shut down some of its Nextel channels in a month, even though the delays in what is known as the rebanding efforts were not Nextel's alone and can be traced back to the public safety departments as well. The rebanding project was designed to minimize interference Nextel is causing to many different first responder systems. The project was a gigantic one to begin with, and while there was a time frame established, no one on either side of the fence could have anticipated all of the issues that slowed the process.
Still, on the public safety blogs, the battle rages as to whose "fault" it is that the rebanding has not been completed. The bottom line is that no one dropped the ball, there were simply many unforeseen obstacles and issues that had to be resolved and it took more time than was anticipated. My view, for what it is worth, is that the court, which ruled on something it probably does not understand, was wrong in this case and Sprint should have been given a stay of execution, as it were, because of the circumstances.
Getting back to the fate of Sprint and all its pieces and parts, the way I see it, Clearwire and Sprint merging their two WiMAX efforts as was announced today was an easy decision for Sprint, though the project probably has a better chance to succeed if it isn't called a "joint venture." Sprint has not had much luck with such arrangements in the past, which seem to fall apart as witnessed by the demise of Pivot, its joint venture with the cable companies.
In the first reports I have read about this deal, the speculation centers around Intel putting more money into this venture and that the CEO of Clearwire will be the CEO while Craig McCaw will be the Chairman, to no one's great surprise. The statement that really got me was that "WiMAX was starting to lose ground to a competing technology called LTE, even though it is still in the development phases: Sprint Nextel needed to do something to win over shareholder approval." This is a very strange statement since WiMAX was pushed into becoming a 3G technology by the WiMAX Forum and others who pressed the ITU to adopt WiMAX as 3G, which it did. Now they are saying that LTE, a 4G technology, is starting to compete with WiMAX? I don't think so.
In a megahertz-by-megahertz comparison, by everybody's measure, WiMAX has just about the same capabilities as CDMA2000 1xEV-DO and UMTS/HSPA in terms of data speeds and other wireless characteristics. Meanwhile, LTE, while still in theoretical mode, has been designed to leave all of the 3G technologies in the dust and only UMB, the other 4G technology being developed, can come close to the performance of LTE.
Yes, the real competition for WiMAX is LTE-but not because the two have the same speeds and capabilities. It is because existing network operators that already have 3G networks with the same, if not better, capabilities as WiMAX, will roll out LTE on top of their 3G systems. This is a one-two punch to WiMAX. By the time this joint venture is able to build out WiMAX Mobile version one (the 3G version), LTE will be up and running, probably while the new version of WiMAX is still in the design phase because the IEEE takes so long to release a standard.
I would say that today's 3G networks, the ones already built by Verizon, AT&T, Alltel and, yes, Sprint, are the current competitors to WiMAX mobile and that cable and DSL services where available are competitors to WiMAX fixed services. By the way, I keep asking if WiMAX is so fast and has all of this bandwidth, why does Clearwire restrict data speeds on its networks to less than I would get with cable, DSL, EV-DO Rev A or UMTS-HSPA? I don't get it at all, so I must be missing something and I'm still looking for an answer.
I guess this move will make Sprint stockholders happy, although it is down in trading this morning along with the entire market. If I go back and add up all of the money raised and spent by Clearwire and Sprint so far, with as little to show for it as they have to date, I have to wonder who is pulling the strings behind the curtain on this one. In any event, Sprint does not have to worry about WiMAX anymore and can concentrate on CDMA (Sprint) and iDEN (Nextel) and perhaps sell off the rest of the company.
So WiMAX goes away from Sprint and becomes a joint venture that it is either successful or not-it will take a few years before we know for sure. What about the rest of Sprint? It has lots of 1900-MHz spectrum and a robust almost-nationwide network with voice, two data speeds including higher than 1 Mbps using EV-DO Rev A, and it is up and operating. This is worth money to someone I am sure, but is it worth more as a standalone network or in conjunction with Nextel's network? Nextel, after all, is at 850 MHz with better propagation than 1900 MHz. Once the rebanding is completed, it will have 3 MHz of contiguous spectrum at 850 MHz, which would make it a good place to put a couple of CDMA2000 1X or EV-DO carriers to provide even better coverage. So for a CDMA network operator that only has spectrum at 1900 MHz, Nextel might still have some real value.
But what if Deutsche Telekom (DT) wanted to buy Sprint and turn it into a GSM/UMTS/HSPA operator? Well, UMTS takes 5 MHz of spectrum so Nextel's 3 MHz would not do any good unless it was used for LTE, which can operate in a variety of carrier sizes from 1.25 MHz up to 20 MHz. But until LTE is ready for deployment, the weight of Nextel might be too much for DT to want to deal with, so perhaps Sprint would jettison Nextel, as it looks like it might be doing with WiMAX, and be back where it started: a 900-MHz wireless network operator.
What would happen to Nextel then? The network has been bleeding customers, and several mistakes have been made along the way in the effort to gain more capacity. Not too long ago, Motorola came up with a new vocoder that gave Nextel more capacity per channel but turned the voice aspect of the network into mush, and quickly and quietly, that idea was abandoned. Whoever bought Nextel would still have to finish the rebanding efforts, which are liable to run into 2012 at the pace they are going. How long will Motorola keep supporting a 20-plus year old technology that is not very spectrally efficient but does offer good push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities? Especially since AT&T has a PTT offering, Sprint is reportedly beginning to roll out QChat, which is as good if not better than Nextel's PTT, and rumors are that Verizon is not far behind with its own PTT offering. I believe that the one distinction Nextel has had will become a moot point in the next 18-24 months.
Does the Nextel situation provide an opportunity for the first responder community to get a network that might solve its interoperability problems and save money in the short term? Perhaps, but Nextel's coverage is lacking in some areas, the system is old and getting older, and Motorola is the only vendor that makes devices that work on it. This does not look like much of a solution to me at the moment, especially if there is to be a new attempt to get the 700-MHz system for public/private customers off the ground and it will be built using 4G technology, not a technology that is as old as a lot of first responders' own private network dispatch systems. And what about dispatch? Nextel's network is not capable of true dispatch capabilities when it comes to the requirements for police, fire and EMS and it is not capable of providing simplex (peer-to-peer) communications, especially in a major event when many simplex channels are needed. (The 700-MHz broadband system won't either, but it is about data to start with, leaving dispatch and simplex operations on existing channels or moving them to a different technology (P25) in the adjacent 700-MHz slice of spectrum.)
I am not sure I see any real value in Nextel's existing technology going forward, and today it doesn't have sufficient contiguous spectrum for a broadband play. Perhaps the network could be replaced with GSM and other spectrum acquired for broadband, or someone wants to combine the Nextel and 700-MHz D block into a cohesive voice and data system. In any event, it sounds expensive to me, and while this might provide a temporary lash-up (or is the new term 'mash-up'?) for interoperable voice and data services, it will still require multiple radios and no one but Motorola will want to build equipment for the Nextel system going forward.
So dissecting Sprint Nextel, it appears to me as though the sum of the pieces has certainly shrunk in value. The point of its WiMAX play was to be able to offer the "wireless Internet" at affordable prices everywhere, and now it looks like the only way this could be accomplished is to spin WiMAX off and then spend a lot of money making it work. I still have a problem with the differences in coverage between 70, 850, 1900 and 2500 MHz. In Europe, where 2.1 GHz was the spectrum allocated to UMTS, they are moving down to 900 MHz. Why? Because the differences in coverage between even 1900 MHz and 2500 MHz are very real.
So with WiMAX gone, that leaves Sprint's CDMA network and the Nextel networks. Nextel's claim to fame is its business customers who want and need PTT (including secondary first responder usage) and who also deploy fleets of vehicles since Nextel was first with location-based services for fleets. However, while Sprint and Nextel have been trying to get their arms around each other, get the rebanding done and play with WiMAX, the rest of the industry has moved ahead rapidly. PTT is no longer something only Nextel can provide now that AT&T, Alltel and even MetroPCS offer it and soon, Sprint will offer PTT on its CDMA network as will Verizon. When LTE is rolled out in 2009 or 2010, PTT will be easy to implement and, I suspect, part of the basic system design. So Nextel's time has slipped away.
Sprint became side-tracked with the Nextel merger and the fact that it had to do something with the 2500-MHz spectrum or lose it. So they did what was probably the logical thing to do in deciding to go with WiMAX since it looked as though this technology would have many vendors and would provide a way to keep its licenses-and it didn't hurt that Intel and others threw about $2 billion into the pot to sweeten it. Sprint's mistake was to parrot the claims of those heavily invested in WiMAX-30 km radius per cell site, unbelievable data rates, "4X the coverage at 10X less cost" than traditional wireless services and on and on. You would have thought when Sprint announced WiMAX that it would cure the common cold and then Intel led it around the world as the WiMAX poster child, about to change the world and give us real competition with a technology that was far superior to what was already out there-only it isn't!
I like Sprint as a company. I know a lot of people there (though not as many as I used to) and I respect its new CEO. It appears to me that Sprint is trying to figure out what makes sense-what pieces it spins off and how to make its stockholders happy. I have to wonder what its CEO would do if he was told that the stockholders would give him a year grace period and not drive his stock price down in the meantime. I bet things would turn out quite different from what we will see.
I hope Sprint emerges from all of this as a viable and strong company. It certainly has had tough times lately, some of its own making, some due to the fast pace of the industry and some because, well, some things simply take longer than expected.