ORLANDO, Fla.—Sprint’s network overhaul will drop the number of cell sites it operates by 44 percent, executive Bob Azzi said at a conference today.

The $5 billion project, dubbed Network Vision, will slash Sprint’s cell sites from 68,000 to 38,000, excluding its use of Clearwire’s towers, he said during a keynote address at the Rural Cellular Association’s spring show.

“We often don’t like to use the word future-proof, but in the case of this network architecture... it puts us in position for what might become the 5G services of the future,” Azzi said.

The wide-ranging equipment revamp replaces legacy gear with smaller, more efficient base stations that support LTE.

The update will drive a significant reduction in operating expenses through cuts in in-footprint roaming fees, reduced energy costs and self-organizing network technology that will lower the expense of maintaining the network.

Once in place, the project will reduce Sprint’s cost per bit and cost per voice minute by 50 percent, Azzi said. The number is in line with the company’s previous cost-savings estimates.

Azzi reported that Sprint and its vendors Alcatel-Lucent, Samsung and Ericsson currently have between 5,000 and 6,000 people working on the project. About 12,000 of the new sites will be on air by the end of the year, with the bulk of the project slated to be complete by the end of 2013. Sprint said last year work was under way on about 22,000 sites.

Sprint plans to light up its LTE service in 10 cities before the middle of the year, including Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

It will eventually discontinue its use of Clearwire’s WiMAX service, but plans to tap the carrier’s still-unbuilt TD-LTE network to supplement its own LTE capacity. The service will also get a boost from 800 MHz spectrum repurposed from its iDEN network, which is in the process of being replaced by a CDMA-based push-to-talk network.

The transition away from Clearwire is already under way. Azzi said Sprint “won't be doing any more handsets with WiMAX.”

Sprint previously said it plans to sell Clearwire devices through 2012 before it fazes them out, and plans to launch 15 LTE devices this year.