[UFO Chicago] So *that's* what is going to happen to Nextel....

Neil R. Ormos ormos at ripco.com
Fri Nov 11 08:10:30 CST 2005

Brian Sobolak wrote:
> Jesse Becker wrote:

>> I recall there was some discussion several
>> months back about what Sprint was going to do
>> with the Nextel network (just after it
>> purchased the same).  Turns out they are
>> selling the network to the Department of
>> Defense:

>>   http://www.broadbandreports.com/shownews/68920

> Interesting.  Is Nextel's network that much better?

Brian, I'll respond to your specific question then
then comment on the blog article that provoked it.

IMO, the iDEN system used by Nextel is not better
in its current form than either GSM or CDMA.  Most
of wireless telephony seems to be converging
toward a CDMA air interface with GSM-style
user-interface, call control, and network
interoperability features.  The iDEN air interface
uses TDMA, which, compared to CDMA, is less
spectrum-efficient, less robust, and furnishes a
data link that degrades less gracefully as the
radio channel degrades.  That said, Motorola,
which developed the iDEN system, has very smart
engineers, and I would not underestimate their
ability to develop a new generation iDEN system
that overcomes any disadavantages of the current
system and also meets the particular needs of
emergency responders.

The Nextel system is popular among government
users at many levels largely because of: (1) the
walkie-talkie feature which Nextel offers under
their "Direct Connect" and "Group Connect" marks;
(2) Nextel's offers of prioritized service to
certain classes of users; and (3) Nextel's
apparently greater willingness (than other
carriers) to work closely with customers to
provide in-building coverage.  As an example of
(3), for customers who use Nextel extensively,
Nextel will place a cell-site or repeater at the
customer's facility to ensure adequate coverage

It's not terribly surprising that Sprint would
seek to unload the Nextel network since Sprint
already has the capability to provide the
walkie-talkie feature on its PCS CDMA network and
operating two separate networks is economically
inefficient.  When Sprint bought Nextel, it was
assumed that they would dispose of the iDEN
properties, and there was much speculation
regarding how Sprint might get the most value out
of the iDEN network and corresponding SMR
spectrum--some suggested that the iDEN network
would be phased out, with Sprint using the SMR
frequencies to augment the PCS CDMA service;
others contemplated a frequency swap, where Sprint
would give up the SMR spectrum and receive some
additional spectrum near the existing PCS bands.

As to the blog article... which states in part:

>> The United States of America has come to a
>> fundamental conclusion about its national
>> communications infrastructure post-9/11 in
>> regards to homeland security; it's broken. The
>> Department of Defense, working with the FCC,
>> DHS, the President, and Congress has brokered a
>> framework agreement to purchase Sprint Nextel's
>> iDEN network as the first phase of a national
>> overhaul of its security framework in regards
>> to communication.

>> The plan is simple; everyone involved in
>> securing this nation will be on the same
>> network. This network will be using an
>> encrypted iDEN sequence, ensuring that all
>> soldiers, first responders, and chain of
>> command will be able to contact each
>> other. This is especially in the event of a
>> series of disasters in concert (say, for
>> example, multiple terrorist attacks in multiple
>> major metropolitan areas simultaneously).

>> We do not intend to disclose details of the
>> inner-workings or how DoD iDEN will differ from
>> the current iDEN. We will only say that the
>> transition will be announced approximately two
>> to three years from the deprecation date of
>> iDEN at 2010. All Nextel customers will be
>> issued dual-network CDMA/iDEN handsets, so that
>> as iDEN is barred from consumer use, CDMA will
>> take its place.

I don't have any inside information regarding
whether Sprint will sell the Nextel properties to
DOD, so I won't speculate on that.  However, a lot
of the allegations in the article are just plain
nonsense, which is probably why they're in a blog
and not in the New York Times.  For one thing, the
national communications infrastructure isn't
"broken"--it's just imperfect (like everything
else in life), unable to handle peak loads (like
all other infrastructure), and is not completely
reliable in case of natural or man-made disaster
(like all other infrastructure).  Obviously,
everything can be improved, but at a cost, and
building a single network for "everyone involved
in securing this nation" isn't likely to be the
way it will happen.

For another, reliance on a single system like
Nextel's, which requires an extensive fixed
infrastructure, is exactly what you don't want in
communications systems used in real emergencies.
The infrastructure can break under heavy load, and
can be wiped out by natural forces or human
attacks.  A single system is an especially good
target for attacks and is especially vulnerable to
natural forces.  Instead, what you want is a
plurality of systems, elements of of which are
simple, flexible, diverse, decentralized, and
mobile, so they can be quickly inserted into an
affected area to provide the service that is
actually required by the disaster.  For example,
in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,
the systems that actually worked were a very small
number of fixed networks which managed to survive
the hurricane, plus the mobile networks inserted
by the military, ham radio operators, and NGOs
such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Also, although it's important that agencies
be able to communicate with one another in a
disaster, it does not follow that it would be
necessary, advantageous or even acceptable that
all agencies use the same system.  It's relatively
easy to provide shared channels or other
interoperability facilities that allow agencies
using different systems to communicate with one
another.  But even if all agencies were on the
same system, there would need to be some
segregation of communications by function;
otherwise, all of the channels would be so
saturated that no useful communications could
occur.  The rapid reconfiguration of systems to
allow the specific inter-agency communications
needed in a particular disaster is a non-trivial
problem that is not solved by simply having
everyone on the same system.  In addition,
regardless of what's done on the federal level,
local agencies which now operate their own
communications systems are unwilling to cede
control of their communications to state or
federal agencies, for any number of reasons
including economics and organizational autonomy.

Also, someone, I think Larry, suggested that the
military might be interested in the Nextel SMR
spectrum.  I think this is unlikely, because there
already is a ton of spectrum allocated to defense
and federal government uses, and the Nextel
spectrum IIRC varies by geography.  Defense
applications generally want unshared contiguous
spectrum.  Most of the credible stuff I've read
contemplates that spectrum freed up by Nextel
would be reallocated to local/state police, fire,
and similar users, for which there is a perceived
need for spectrum, and for which lack of
geographic and frequency contiguity (is that a
word?)  is not an issue.

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