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Sprint Home VoIP/Cellular Set For 2nd Half

Sprint Nextel outlined new product and distribution plans here at an investor conference, where it targeted an October launch of its first dual-mode iDEN/CDMA phone and the second-half debut of a Wi-Fi/cellular phone that provides VoIP service through a home Wi-Fi network.

The integrated Wi-Fi/cellular voice service will be available in seven undisclosed markets this year as part of a joint venture announced last year between the carrier and four of the largest cable operators: Advance/Newhouse, Comcast, Cox and Time-Warner Cable. The phone will handoff calls from the cellular network to a Wi-Fi-enabled broadband cable modem. The service will focus initially on integrated voice services, including integrated home/cellular voice mail and call routing, said COO Len Lauer, but in 2007, the service will expand to include entertainment and contents, including the ability to remotely program a cable company’s DVR from the cellular handset, watch cable-TV programs on the handset, and integrate e-mail boxes and data services offered by the cable companies and Sprint Nextel.

The dual-mode phone will use Nextel’s iDEN-network push-to-talk (PTT) technology, but traditional voice and data services will be delivered over Sprint’s CDMA 1x and CDMA 1x EV-DO network. Sprint Nextel’s Boost prepaid-service division will offer a dual-mode phone in 2007.

In the wake of the August 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel, the combined company also outlined plans to reduce its store count by 170 stores to 1,530 by the end of the second quarter and to expand the distribution of Nextel iDEN-network phones this year into more national retail accounts following RadioShack’s addition of iDEN phones four months ago. The national accounts, which already sell Sprint’s CDMA-network phones, would be able to take advantage of a new activation system to be available mid-year to activate phones on either network, said consumer solutions president Tim Kelly. The rollout of iDEN phones to national accounts was always in the carrier’s post-merger plans, Kelly said.

The stores targeted to close were chosen based on productivity and proximity to other Sprint and Nextel stores

The carrier also outlined plans to bolster support for the small wireless retailers who formed the backbone of Nextel distribution, in part by emphasizing the Nextel brand more in ads, offering a new co-op advertising program, and stepping up other incentives. Traffic at those stores dropped after the carrier launched its post-merger ad campaign focused on the Sprint name, the company admitted.

On another distribution-related topic, COO Lauer said “acquisition costs need to get lower” and that “acquisition costs are lower on the direct distribution side.”

On products and service topics, executives said Sprint Nextel will:

  • Expand its high-speed EV-DO footprint to cover 187 million people, up from a year-end 2005 level of almost 150 million.
  • Commercially roll out a higher speed EV-DO Rev. A network in the first quarter of 2007, with all of its markets offering Rev. A by the end of 2007. In the first quarter of 2008, the company will launch high-performance push-to-talk service on its Rev. A network and, via a gateway, enable iDEN-network and CDMA-network subscribers to talk to each other via PTT. (Rev. A enables VoIP over a cellular network, accelerates data download speeds to a theoretical 3.1Mbps from 2.4Mbps, and accelerates upload speeds from 135kbps to 1.8Mbps.)

Sprint will make a second-quarter decision on which of several technologies to use to launch IP-based 4G service over its 98MHz of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. Sprint 4G networks will be deployed where needed, and calls and data sessions will be handed off from Sprint’s 4G network to its 3G EV-DO network. The company will launch 4G service in 2009 in limited markets to meet FCC requirements.

Service over Sprint’s 4G spectrum can be offered “at fairly reasonable retail prices,” Lauer noted. CTO Barry West explained the low costs in large part to the sheer amount of spectrum owned by Sprint, lowering the cost to deploy the technology at any given cell site.

Sprint said it will become the first carrier to conduct a trial this summer of Qualcomm’s MediaFLO technology, which broadcasts multiple channels of live TV to cellphones and other handheld devices over non-cellular frequencies.