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Sprint, LightSquared and Clearwire - when will an LTE network happen

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Sprint, LightSquared and Clearwire - when will an LTE network happen
Over the past year or so, there have been plenty of rumors suggesting that Sprint would eventually drop WiMAX as its 4G wireless broadband technology of choice in favor of the LTE standard, yet the possibility of these speculations materializing has never been as high as it is today. The sealed and signed deal between Sprint and LTE wholesaler LightSquared is, of course, the event leading everyone to believe that the carrier is indeed looking into an LTE future. But leaving speculations aside, what are the real chances of such a transition ever happening, how will it affect the industry, and most importantly, when will the end user be able to bear the fruits of the change? Let us take a closer look at the situation now and see if we can make any predictions.

Shaking hands with LightSquared

Sprint, LightSquared and Clearwire - when will an LTE network happen
The first item to go under the microscope is the freshly-baked partnership between Sprint and LightSquared. The 15-year deal between the two companies was inked on July 28 and states that over the course of 11 years, Sprint is to get $9 billion in cash from LightSquared for providing the infrastructure needed to host its LTE network. An additional $4.5 billion worth of credits towards LTE and satellite service will also go straight to Sprint's wallet. Furthermore, the carrier will be given the opportunity to purchase up to 50% of LightSquared's 4G band capacity. In return, LightSquared will be given roaming access to Sprint's 3G network starting 2012 and will save a tremendous amount of cash for utilizing Sprint's towers and equipment instead of deploying its own. If everything goes as planned, LightSquared is expected to cover about 260 million Americans with its LTE umbrella by 2015.

But having the partnership between Sprint and LightSquared set in stone means that the carrier will surely go LTE eventually, right? Well, not necessarily. Despite all the speculations supporting that theory, Sprint has never made an official statement saying that such a transition is about to happen. Nothing is guaranteed until we hear the words coming straight from the horse's mouth. Besides that, LightSquared has been having some serious troubles getting its LTE network up and running as the chunk of frequency spectrum used for the service has been found to be in interference with GPS equipment. Until a solution to the problem is found, the switch to LightSquared's LTE network simply cannot be switched on. Still, the company has agreed to test a different piece of frequency spectrum, which will likely be used for LTE services if found to be having no effect on GPS gear.

The future of Clearwire

Sprint, LightSquared and Clearwire - when will an LTE network happen
However, if Sprint does eventually decide to switch to LTE, what would happen to its current WiMAX service provider – Clearwire? This logical question arose right after the deal between LightSquared and the carrier was signed, yet a probable outcome became apparent soon after. Only about a week later, Clearwire announced its plans to embrace the LTE standard as well while gradually drifting away from WiMAX. As a result, Sprint reportedly initiated talks about purchasing Clearwire entirely, 54% of which it already owns. There is a catch, however, as Clearwire will require a considerable amount of cash, about $600 million, to be exact, before deployment of its LTE network could start, and that money, would supposedly come out of Sprint's pocket. The carrier has yet to announce officially whether it would grab the remaining portion of Clearwire and put it to good use.

Flipping the LTE switch on

Still, if a day comes when Sprint officially adopts 4G LTE, teaming up with both LightSquared and Clearwire may prove more than beneficial as it would considerably speed up the process of spreading its LTE coverage across the nation. Furthermore, LightSquared and Clearwire use spectrums in different bands, 1.5GHz and 2.5GHz respectively, which means that the former will have rock-solid coverage in rural areas and the latter will have a stronger urban coverage. And if supporting both frequencies on its devices sounds like a bit of a concern, dual mode LTE networks are operational in some countries around the world, meaning that it wouldn't be that much of a technical challenge for Sprint to equip its LTE-enabled smartphones, tablets and access points with dual mode LTE radios.

Sprint, LightSquared and Clearwire - when will an LTE network happen
But the matter that interests subscribers the most is when they will be able to take a ride on Sprint's hypothetical 4G LTE network. Well, assuming that such a network gets announced, it might be quite a wait as LightSquared is expected to start offering 4G service no sooner than next year. Besides that, it would take some time before the first LTE-enabled devices start popping up on Sprint's shelves. Presumably, LTE hotspots and USB dongles will not take that long to develop, but 4G LTE smartphones for Sprint might not become reality before the second or third quarter of 2012. How many markets will Sprint bless with LTE coverage is another thing that needs to be considered. Unless you happen to live in a city chosen for Sprint's LTE network to debut in, do not expect to have LTE service from the carrier straight from day one.

For now, Sprint subscribers will have to settle down with WiMAX 4G service, which is not going to be shut down anytime soon. Clearwire stated that it will continue to support its existing WiMAX network for a considerable period of time and is even expecting to add an additional 2 million subscribers to its database by the end of the year. However, it isn't exactly clear whether the network's coverage is to be expanded any further.

Additional details are expected to be announced during the Sprint Strategy Update event, which is to take place on October 7, so if you are crossing your fingers in hopes of Sprint switching to LTE, you might want to mark that date in your calendar.

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