Sprint iDEN customers to begin losing cell sites in 2012

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Sprint customers using the carrier's iDEN push-to-talk devices will have to find a new way to communicate, and they may have to do so soon. Sprint executives said in a press briefing on April 12 in their Overland Park, Kan. headquarters that the company will decommission approximately one-third of their iDEN network sites in 2012. The remainder of the iDEN network will be decommissioned by the end of 2013. Phil Goldstein from our sister publication FierceWireless covered the event.

According to Sprint (NYSE: S) spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter, about 9,600 iDEN cell sites are scheduled for decommissioning this year. Schlageter told FierceMobileIT that iDEN customers, which once numbered about 20 million when Sprint bought the service from Nextel, now number about 6 million. She said that the iDEN sites being shut down have  very low usage.

Sprint's iDEN push-to-talk service has been very popular with public safety users, and those users make up one of the major groups still using iDEN. Other groups include construction workers and workers at major theme parks. According to Schlageter, iDEN's limited capabilities mean that many users also carry a separate smartphone for purposes like email or Internet access.

The decommissioning of the iDEN network will pose a particular challenge for public safety organizations that depend on the service. Most of these organizations are operated by state and local governments that are cash-strapped because of the poor economy. Schlageter said that the requirement to replace iDEN devices will likely be offset by the lower cost of not needing two devices for communications. In addition, she pointed out, iDEN customers were first told of Sprint's plans to shut down iDEN in 2011.

Sprint already offers a CDMA-based push-to-talk service that operates in a manner similar to the iDEN network. Over the years Sprint has managed to improve the CDMA PTT support so that it no longer has the latency problems it did when it debuted. Schlageter said that there will be an upgrade path available for existing iDEN customers.

"We plan to offer current Nextel Direct Connect customers attractive device pricing to help transition to Sprint Direct Connect," Schlageter told FierceMobileIT. She added that "iDEN customers have had over a year's notice about the decommissioning of the iDEN network--almost unprecedented in the industry. The transition to Sprint push-to-talk on CDMA is happening today and will continue over the next several months as customers, public safety groups and enterprises approach natural upgrade device cycles."

CDMA push-to-talk services are also available from Verizon (NYSE: VZ) Wireless, giving current iDEN users a choice of plans and carriers. Once Sprint has shut down iDEN, it plans to use that band for its new LTE service, provided the company receives approval from the Federal Communications Commission.

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