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Sprint's iDEN finally headed for sign-off

Push-to-talk fueled the success of the scrappy network, which may be phased out starting in 2013

By , IDG News Service
December 07, 2010 04:21 PM ET

IDG News Service - Most iDEN handsets are built to withstand rougher treatment than your average cell phone, but the venerable network itself will finally bite the dust within the next few years.

As part of a plan to consolidate its networks using new equipment that can serve multiple radio bands and technologies, Sprint said Monday it expects to begin phasing out iDEN in 2013. In the meantime, Sprint will shift the PTT (push-to-talk) service for which the technology is famous to its CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) network.

Nextel Communications adopted Motorola's iDEN technology in 1996 to build a cellular service that became popular among business users and in blue-collar fields such as plumbing and construction. Its national network was pieced together from a few early regional carriers and Motorola spectrum licenses for two-way radios.

Nextel was popular because its phones were rugged and incorporated PTT, which could take the place of the walkie-talkie radios often used by workers in the field. Partly as a result of that business customer base, Nextel was envied for its high per-user revenue. It also used iDEN for its low-cost, prepaid Boost Mobile service. Sprint, which also served many business users, merged with Nextel in 2005.

The newly formed Sprint Nextel reassured subscribers that it would keep iDEN running until at least 2007. The network has already outlived that commitment by three years, even as its users have fled in large numbers. In the third quarter of this year, counting customers of its own brands, Sprint reported a net loss of 383,000 postpaid and 700,000 prepaid iDEN subscribers, ending with a total of 6.1 million postpaid and 4.5 million prepaid customers on the network. In the same period, Sprint's own-brand CDMA services gained subscribers. Nextel had more than 15 million subscribers when it merged with Sprint.

But the iDEN network is finally succumbing to the passage of time and advancements in technology. While Sprint and other U.S. carriers operate national networks that run at 500K bps (bits per second) or more, and are migrating to multimegabit "4G" systems, iDEN's data throughput averages 20K bps to 30K bps.

"iDEN is this really scrappy technology that allowed [Nextel] to turn little, worthless pieces of spectrum in a local area into a nationwide gold mine," said Nielsen Co. analyst Roger Entner.

As more former walkie-talkie users adopted the technology, it became a standard within certain trades, said NPD Group analyst Eddie Hold. Those in the trade expected to be able to use Nextel PTT, with its distinctive two-beep alert, to contact co-workers or subcontractors.

"It was the first social network. It was the professional social network," Hold said.

Another advantage was that PTT calls were free, Entner pointed out.

Seeing the loyal and lucrative customer base rallying around Nextel and Motorola, which were effectively the only purveyors of iDEN, other vendors and carriers developed their own PTT systems. Those alternatives have never been hugely successful, partly because of the value of that social network around iDEN, according to Hold.

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