Although SouthernLINC is building a Long Term Evolution (LTE) network for its 140,000 mission-critical communications subscribers, the company has no shutdown date for its iDEN push-to-talk (PTT) network.
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“There is no way to bring iDEN down before 2018, because we don’t have the LTE ready, let alone voice and PTT capability,” said Rodney Johnson, vice president of sales and marketing with SouthernLINC.
SouthernLINC Wireless launched its iDEN-based SMR service in 800 MHz spectrum in 1996. The commercial service provides communications to four electric utilities in the Southeast — Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power — and other mission-critical users. Southern Company owns the four electric utilities and SouthernLINC Wireless.
Last year SouthernLINC announced Ericsson and Cisco as the vendors for the company's LTE network. At that time, SouthernLINC said construction would begin in 2015 and the network would be fully operational by 2018. That schedule is still on track with site acquisition work underway now ahead of the physical start in 2015, Johnson said.
SouthernLINC leases most of its sites from a third party, and those leases need to be renegotiated to add LTE. Users should be able to have fixed data services during the buildout, with mobile capability following as more sites are added. More towers will need to be added to ensure the LTE network has the same coverage as the current 120,000-square-mile voice network, Johnson said.
“The whole tower wattage is much less in LTE,” he said. “To cover the same footprint in data speed and RF coverage requires more sites. There will be a larger number of sites.”
The carrier will rely on iDEN through its LTE buildout. “We are going to keep iDEN going for voice through the entire buildout of LTE, and only when LTE is ready for voice will we start that transition [away from iDEN],” Johnson said. “As we put the evolved packet core (EPC) on and connect it to the sites, we will be able to provide LTE service in data-only mode. It could be mobile or fixed. We will service our customers on the LTE side in the early days with data. Then as we bring voice on and more sites to support mobility, toward 2018 during the later years of the build, we’ll start looking at voice transition for customers. That’s the 50,000-foot view. There are many details to be sorted out on how that will actually happen.”
Johnson said the 800 MHz reconfiguration is allowing the carrier to build its LTE network on 800 MHz spectrum. “That is unique,” he said. “There are some folks that will put LTE on 800 MHz longer term. I'm not aware we’ll be the only one, but no one else is doing it right now that I know of. We participate with the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to make sure we have a service that will be usable.”
Until the LTE network is built, the carrier will continue to maintain the iDEN system. In fact, SouthernLINC added 29 sites to the iDEN network during 2012 and will build nine new sites this year. SouthernLINC recently renewed its contract with the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), which offers a range of services to state and local governments via statewide purchase contracts. State and local governments are the predominant users of the SouthernLINC network outside the core four utility users.
Sprint’s shutdown of its iDEN network last June impacted SouthernLINC because Sprint was the company’s nationwide roaming partner. In March 2013, SouthernLINC entered into an agreement with Prepaid Wireless Wholesale to sell nationwide high-speed data, voice and messaging services within the company's regional service territory. SouthernLINC plans to launch a new device this year with a dual subscriber identity module (SIM) that provides iDEN connectivity through the SouthernLINC network and 3G connectivity through the Prepaid Wireless Wholesale network.
The carrier saw a small uptick in customers before the 2013 VHF and UHF narrowbanding mandate. “We had many customers who should have left the narrowband world, but they didn’t believe the penalties would be enforced and they weren’t,” he said. “A lot of businesses that could roll the dice, did and they are still widebanded. … How that is going to play out, I don’t know.”
For the majority of SouthernLINC customers, the network has been reliable during many hurricanes, ice storms and fires, Johnson said. That won’t change during the LTE transition.
“iDEN is here to stay — even while we’re building our LTE network,” Johnson said.
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