Sprint seemed awfully clever when it navigated a public safety deal and gained new spectrum as part of its acquisition of Nextel: That's all unraveling now. The FCC and the courts are saying that a 26-June-2008 deadline for vacating its 800 MHz holdings in favor of public safety groups would hold even if the new users weren't on the band. The delays for new users getting on the band are reportedly Sprint's, given that it had the responsibility for this migration.
Nextel had splintered holdings in the 800 MHz band that were difficult to administer, and caused verifiable interference with (and vice versa) splintered public safety spectrum in that band. Sprint agreed to pay the estimated multi-billion-dollar cost of getting new equipment to public safety agencies in exchange for a hunk of spectrum that they wouldn't have to buy at auction from the FCC. The cost for a whole set of swaps, migrations, and givebacks was $4.8b, but there was technically no limit on how much Sprint would have to pay for public safety migration--as much as it cost is the true limit.
Last August, the Wall Street Journal did a lengthy update of the 2005 deal, explaining that the effort was vastly behind schedule, and was vastly underbudgeted, too. One county in Pennsylvania estimated that its costs could run $18.5m to $150m, with the low number far above Sprint's own estimates.
It would be seemingly unfair to allow Sprint's delays in moving fire, police, and first responders off the band to also delay Sprint's requirement in vacating the band. We'll see how the FCC chooses to respond. It could cost Sprint billions and further accelerate the loss of Nextel customers, because Sprint would lose a number of active iDEN sites.
They have no one to blame but themselves. Sprint's management has blundered through this merger for years. They kept separate Kansas and Virginia headquarters, failed to produce high-quality dual-network devices, gave few incentives for Nextel customers to move to Sprint's dominant CDMA network, bled employees, and botched this migration.
Now Sprint did have the problem of needing to help move incumbents in the 1.9 GHz spectrum it received and the 800 MHz spectrum it was giving up. The articles on this court decision don't note whether Sprint's 1.9 GHz network is free and clear, nor whether Sprint had been working for the last three years to get its Nextel users to get dual-band handsets that would work with the new frequency.
With the WiMax plan also on the table, Sprint was basically committed to building or rebuilding and supporting four network architectures: CDMA (for 2G), EVDO (for 3G), WiMax (for 4G), and iDEN (for 2G).
Sprint is in the position where it may variously be sold (to Deutsche Telekom to merge with its T-Mobile USA division, which would add both GSM and UMTS/HSPA to the mix!), sell off its Nextel division (to a public safety venture headed by Cyren Call), and/or spin off its WiMax division or form a broad venture with Clearwire to build and market it.
Update: Oh, yeah, and Qwest walks away from Sprint partnership, switching to Verizon Wireless as its partner. Qwest spun off its cell division years ago, and has no overlap in its wireline territory with Verizon.