First off, if you know anything about where I live, you know I live in an area where almost everyone has Verizon as their mobile provider. This story is far more complicated - it’s about how Verizon got to be a monopoly here. It’s also about a system and regulatory body that failed an entire region, corporate greed and idiocy, and a provider winning because it was more or less the only choice left standing.
First we start with how service evolved in the bag era of mobile phones. Chester originally had two providers of mobile service - Douglas Telecom, which did business as Cellular One, and First Cellular of Southern Illinois. These were your mainstays that provided service through most of the region with the stronger Cellular A and Cellular B frequencies, Suncom and Sprint provided PCS along the Interstates. This market arrangement was not optimal but most people felt as if they had a choice between the locally owned CDMA First Cellular, and the California based D-AMPS Cellular One. Roaming onto other networks, as always, was a pain. However both services were fairly reliable.
Eventually Cellular One, through stupid management, panicked and sold to the newly formed Verizon Wireless. Verizon converted the TDMA Cellular One to CDMA. Verizon quickly grew and became the dominant player in the market, bolstered by a larger area of coverage than First Cellular. First Cellular also flipped over to GSM, a move that hurt their rural coverage, further propelling the market to Verizon dominance.
Eventually, First Cellular sold out to Alltel, a super regional carrier that upgraded their newly acquired networks back to CDMA. Alltel quickly proved they could compete with Verizon, rebuilding First Cellular’s tattered networks and failed marketing.
When Alltel was purchased by Verizon, 24 markets were forced to be divested from Verizon. 18 of those markets were purchased by AT&T that were primarily in western states, leaving Southern Illinois as leftover for Atlantic Tele-Network, Inc. which continued to operate the market as Alltel.
ATNI had three major problems that chased away a good chunk of their customer base. First of all, ATNI had major problems moving people from the old Alltel legacy billing to their own solution, causing lots of headaches and grief for consumers. Secondly, they were unable to provide consumers with advanced handsets, selling the LG Axis and HTC Merge as competition to the Droid RAZR MAXX, Galaxy Nexus, and iPhone offered by Verizon. Third, their senior leadership out of Beverly, Massachusetts were firmly non-committal on moving forward to 4G LTE as even other regional providers such as Pioneer Cellular, Cellcom, Appalachian Wireless, and US Cellular moved forward with advanced 4G LTE networks, with Cellcom, Appalachian, and Pioneer’s networks being compatible with Verizon’s 700 Upper C 4G LTE band.
Alas, the other big three providers have limited coverage in Southern Illinois, with AT&T not even serving large Southern Illinois with 3G let alone 4G, and some southeastern parts of Illinois not receiving AT&T at all. T-Mobile’s coverage is similarly bleak, and Sprint’s coverage is only along Interstate highways and more rural parts of Route 3 along with the Carbondale and Marion areas of Southern Illinois.
In short, this leaves Verizon with an uncompetitive monopoly in my area.
Some of you are wondering why I have Verizon as my provider yet are wondering why I’d be writing about something like Network Vision to work. That’s simple. I want more competition to the Big Red monopoly where I live. That will get covered in another post.
Sprint’s Network Vision program is Sprint’s plan to improve their networks through
1. Enhancing backhaul
2. Cell site consolidation
3. LTE deployment
4. Shutting down the iDEN network and refarming spectrum for CDMA and LTE
First, a history lesson.
Sprint has had a very rocky and turbulent time since the ill-fated decision to merge with Nextel. After the Nextel merger, Sprint was left managing two very large and incompatible networks with great overhead. These networks that were not properly backhauled. In addition, iDEN was a technology that the mobile market was moving away from. Most people were moving from iDEN walkie talkies to popular smartphones that were running on faster 3G networks like Apple’s iPhone and phones running the Android operating system. This financial drain hurt Sprint and left them to not be able to keep up with data growth on their existing 3G CDMA network.
In addition, Sprint had to deploy WiMax service on the 2600 band of TDD spectrum used by the FCC for the BRS and EBS services. The competing LTE standard was not yet ready for Sprint but was ready for Verizon when they launched LTE in late 2010 on the better penetrating and better propagating 700 Upper C band they won in auction in 2007. Sprint was often times at the mercy of partner Clearwire, which they owned a large percentage of, yet was not able to control key details of the deployment. As the marketplace was starting to back LTE and abandon WiMax, Sprint was forced to make a move.
Sprint had already outsourced network management to Ericsson, which had started them on the path of being able to see what they needed to do with their network. That was not enough. Enter Network Vision.
Network Vision was introduced in 2010 and significantly enhanced in 2011. This plan is what the future of their network will be, one that should offer faster data speeds, better coverage, compatibility with the global LTE standard, better devices, and lower costs.
Network Vision will be deployed over the next two years by Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, and Samsung, and is already started toward LTE deployment in the cities of Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston, and San Antonio, with additional work underway in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, Central New Jersey, and Austin.
The first benefit of Network Vision is enhanced backhaul. AT&T has trumpeted enhanced backhaul as part of their enhancement of their network from 3G HSPA to faster HSPA+. Sprint is also enhancing their backhaul to all Internet Protocol based enhanced backhaul using fiber optics and microwave backhaul that will serve users with much faster data speeds on a given cell. Moving away from more ancient T1’s to better and more modern backhaul will enable Sprint users to use current 3G CDMA and future 4G LTE deployments for much faster data speeds.
The second benefit of Network Vision is cell site consolidation. Once Sprint is complete with Network Vision in a market and able to first thin, then shut down Nextel cells in a given market, they will save money on the costs that are used to maintain their network. By reducing costs on energy to run cell sites as well as tower fees and colocation fees, Sprint will be able to run their network at a lower cost, benefiting investors and aiding Sprint in future network expansion. It also makes the network architecture much simpler by flattening it, lowering costs.
How will this affect network coverage? Good question. In most cases, Sprint coverage should be greatly enhanced by consolidating sites. While Sprint had more sites than anyone else in the US mobile industry, they had some of those sites on CDMA and some of those sites on IDEN. By running fewer sites with all those sites on CDMA and LTE, the current CDMA users and future CDMA/LTE users will benefit by actually having more sites with better backhaul. This will lead to increased network satisfaction. Sprint will also be able to deploy voice 1x Advanced channels on 800 MHz spectrum gained from the Nextel shutdown in order to further boost coverage with frequency that will be able to better connect inside thick buildings as well as carry better in rural areas, boosting Sprint coverage further.
This brings us to the third point, LTE deployment. LTE has quickly become the de facto 4G standard in the US, passing HSPA+ and WiMax as the best option for 4G networks. Sprint will benefit by being able to not only offer a better standard for users that is implemented on existing, unused PCS spectrum that will cover better than the 2600 band, they will also get access to better devices. As PCS support is cheaper to add than specialized bands, Sprint will get access to better LTE devices than what they would have had if they stuck with WiMax. LTE device cost is also going down, which will save both Sprint and consumers money. When the Network Vision project is completed, Sprint will be able to deploy LTE to 270 million people. This far exceeds AT&T and T-Mobile on LTE deployment and will only be behind CDMA rival Verizon, which has plans to deploy over it’s existing 3G footprint, which should cover close to 300 million people.
Finally, Sprint finally has a viable platform to migrate Nextel customers to, Sprint Direct Connect. Sprint Direct Connect provides the Nextel walkie talkie function over CDMA with similar response times to iDEN, as well as help iDEN customers by helping them migrate from dumbphones to smartphones running Android that will also be able to use Direct Connect with a downloadable Android app. In spite of the protestations of some iDEN users, Sprint will provide a better service.
This enables Sprint to shut down the iDEN network as of June 30, 2013, and sooner in many areas. Sprint has already thinned the Nextel network down decommissioning thousands of sites without drastically affecting coverage. When Sprint has fully shut down the iDEN network, Sprint will take the existing iDEN spectrum and deploy LTE over the 800 MHz spectrum that was used by iDEN. This is big as this allows Sprint to compete head to head with Verizon and AT&T’s 700 MHz spectrum deployments in LTE. While Verizon and AT&T are deploying 700 MHz in deeper blocks of 10x10 spectrum than what Sprint is doing with 5x5 blocks in the 800 and PCS bands, Sprint has fewer customers to support, so overall, Sprint should be competitive with Verizon and AT&T as far as speeds go and be able do so at a lower price.
Sprint also has a few surprises in store. Sprint will be the first carrier to offer HD voice using existing 1X Advanced networks deployed in the Network Vision program this fall. HD Voice, using Qualcomm’s EVRC-NW codec, will provide Sprint users with a better voice quality experience than what is normally experienced on US mobile networks. Verizon and AT&T have similar programs in use that will be used to enhance voice quality but they involve transitioning from their existing voice standards to Voice over LTE using the AMB-WR codec, which is the LTE and GSM based version of the CDMA EVRC-NW codec. Verizon will not have widespread VoLTE deployment until 2013 when their LTE network nears completion, and AT&T has offered a 2013 time for VoLTE adoption but probably won’t flip the switch until they can offer fallback in call from LTE to their existing UMTS voice networks. Sprint will eventually offer Voice over LTE as well in 2013, but they will be ahead as they will already have EVRC-NW running and AMR-WB will be an incremental leap forward.
Sprint will also be able to use Clear’s upcoming TD-LTE deployment to enhance capacity in “hot zones” in large cities, an optimal use of the deep and rich 2600 spectrum. By using 2600 as a capacity relief, Sprint and Clear will be able to match wits and exceed VZW and AT&T in spectrum deployment for events and other crowded areas that have usually crippled the highest traffic areas. Deployment of microcells will give even more relief.
Overall Network Vision is a very sound plan for Sprint’s future, one that can make their networks every bit the equal of those built by AT&T and Verizon, while returning Sprint to profitability and competitiveness, leading for a brighter Sprint future. I just hope it’s a future including a Network Vision tower in my hometown of Chester, Illinois. I could use some savings on mobile service.