Sprint may consider partnering with regional wireless providers on LTE through network sharing and spectrum hosting arrangements, according to a top network executive. 

The potential tie-ups could look similar to Sprint’s former spectrum hosting deal, LightSquared, which took advantage of the flexible equipment Sprint is using for its network modernization project.   

"That's a scenario we're interested in doing," said Bob Azzi, senior vice president of the Sprint Network, when asked if Sprint shared the Rural Cellular Association's vision for collaboration between its larger members and smaller members on LTE deployment – a vision that includes spectrum hosting and sharing. 

"We do see opportunities with that kind of architecture where you could do some combined radio technologies and spectrum bands,” Azzi said, referring to the revamped architecture it is currently rolling out for LTE.

Sprint signed on to the RCA just last spring, and T-Mobile USA and Cricket Communications became members only this month. Azzi made his comments ahead of a Thursday keynote address at the RCA's spring conference in Orlando, where he plans to discuss Sprint's upgrades and the challenges and opportunities operators face in deploying LTE.  

Cooperation between the RCA's regional and national members could expand under a push from President and CEO Steve Berry, who recently told Wireless Week that the addition of the top-tier operators "will bring more collaborative opportunities" on LTE deployments. 

Azzi emphasized that there is a lot to work out before Sprint will be ready to formalize a deal.

"There are a lot of ideas to explore, and we are happy to be participating in those discussions with anyone willing to have them... but it's a long way from that to 'yes, we have an agreement, yes, we have a business model, yes, we have a way forward'," Azzi said.

Sprint is using a combination of its own 1900 MHz and Clearwire's TD-LTE service in the 2.5 GHz band for its LTE service. Many RCA members hold 700 MHz spectrum for LTE, and AWS spectrum also has come into play.  

The spectrum fragmentation in U.S. LTE networks adds technical difficulties to what would already be a complex business arrangement.  

Sprint is no stranger to working with third parties – it has long depended on Clearwire for WiMAX service and plans to again collaborate with the company for LTE – but its use of multiple network technologies has concerned investors.

Bernstein Research recently questioned how competitive Sprint’s LTE network could be, warning that an LTE-capable iPhone that performed poorly on its network could push the cash-poor company into bankruptcy. Sprint has less spectrum to devote to LTE than its larger competitors. 

Many RCA members have struggled to get their LTE networks off the ground as AT&T and Verizon Wireless are moving aggressively with their own deployments. For instance, C Spire Wireless pushed out the launch date of its LTE network to September, nine months later than it originally planned. 

One of the key hurdles for some RCA members is finding equipment and devices that work with their 700 MHz spectrum, which is often in a different band class than the airwaves held by AT&T and Verizon. The different band classes aren’t interoperable, negatively affecting economies of scale, and it has been difficult for some providers to secure equipment and devices tailored to their unique holdings, the RCA reports. 

The lack of interoperability also means LTE devices can’t roam between networks. Roaming is critical for providers that lack the financial resources and spectrum for a nationwide network, and its absence remains a hindrance to LTE deployments.  The FCC recently began a rulemaking proceeding on the lack of interoperability, but it could be awhile before it issues formal regulations. 

Sprint’s willingness to partner on LTE could be a leg up to regional and rural carriers that are trying to find feasible ways to launch their next-generation mobile broadband service. Some RCA members had signed up for LightSquared’s wholesale LTE service, only to see their go-to-market strategy crumble because of problems with GPS interference.