Sprint to deploy small cell gear from Alcatel-Lucent

Mini base stations to be mounted on street lamps, buildings, to augment new Sprint 4G LTE wireless network

Sprint plans to deploy small cell gear from Alcatel-Lucent to augment its wireless coverage -- including in its new 4G LTE network -- in high-traffic areas, the two companies announced Monday.

Alcatel-Lucent's LightRadio Metro Cells are part of a emerging technology segment called "mini base station" or "small cell" technology.

The Alcatel-Lucent technology comes in a variety of sizes and models that can be deployed on lamp posts or street signs and inside shopping malls and stadiums. In dense urban areas, mini base stations can be used to fill in gaps in coverage when tall buildings block cellular signals.

Today's more powerful cellular base stations are bigger and heavier with a longer range. Signals are available over, for example, several blocks in a crowded downtown.

Many of today's typical base stations are mounted on large cellular towers while the new mini-base stations "are only be the size of a breadbox" and can be mounted on street lamps or buildings in any city location, said Ed Gubbins, an analyst at Current Analysis.

A Sprint spokeswoman said the Alcatel-Lucent gear is expected to augment the carrier's 4G LTE capacity as it rolls out its next-generation network. Wi-Fi coverage with the gear has been considered, she said, but "since public venues and corporate locations are often already covered by a Wi-Fi network, it may not be as interesting for us to do."

Sprint is the first carrier to announce plans to use LightRadio products in a network, a spokesman for Alcatel-Lucent said.

Neither company would disclose a monetary value for the agreement, though the Alcatel-Lucent spokesman called it "big news" for both companies.

Alcatel-Lucent has 39 commercial small cell deployment agreements and more than 20 ongoing trials. The only publicly announced live trial was with Telefonica at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February 2012, the Alcatel-Lucent spokesman said.

Neither company named specific gear that would be deployed under the agreement, but Alcatel-Lucent has data sheets on its Web site that describe several different types of small cells, most weighing less than 10 pounds.

Sprint is in the midst of a massive $4 billion to $5 billion multi-year Network Vision network-building initiative to improve its 3G coverage and deploy 4G LTE.

Small cell technology would lower the cost of infrastructure while expanding coverage and capacity, both companies said. Sprint launched its LTE network in 15 cities on July 16.

Sprint, the nation's third-largest cellular carrier with 56 million mobile customers, spent about $700 million on its Network Vision initiative in the second quarter of 2012, according to analysts reviewing second quarter financial results.

Gubbons noted that Alcatel-Lucent appears to have the lead in the emerging small cell technology market over competitors Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia Siemens.

He said the lead was not so much in share of the market, given the market is new in 2012, but due to Alcatel-Lucent's ability to ship products sooner than competitors.

Alcatel-Lucent also gets high points for its recent unveiling of a professional services offering focused on the deployment of small cells, Gubbons noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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