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One phone on any carrier? Sprint mulling 4G change with profound implications

July 14, 2010 |  4:24 pm

Sprint-ceo-dan-hesse In the not-too-distant future, you might be able to buy a cellphone that could be used on any of the major U.S. carriers, according to rumblings in the mobile phone industry.

A change to Sprint Nextel's cellular infrastructure that the wireless telecom is considering could have profound effects on the country's mobile environment.

Sprint, the nation's third-largest cellphone network, is considering migrating its network to a fourth-generation data technology called LTE (for Long-Term Evolution), Sprint Chief Executive Dan Hesse told the Financial Times (subscription required).

Not to scoop up too much of the alphabet soup that is the next gen wireless technologies (for more on that, check out last month's story in The Times), Sprint has already rolled out a form of 4G, beating all other carriers in the country to the punch.

That particular 4G, which is available in about three-dozen areas nationwide but has yet to officially launch in Los Angeles, is called WiMax. It's generally not as fast as LTE. In some cases, even the faster 3G that T-Mobile has implemented in 25 cities, including L.A., and the same one that AT&T plans to have by the end of the year beats WiMax.

"Sprint is committed today to WiMax deployment, which has allowed us to deliver 4G services before any other national carrier," Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge-Walsh told The Times in an e-mail.

"Today" may be the key word.

Walsh continued: "We’ve always said we intend to maintain our leadership in this space, which requires us to stay abreast of emerging 4G technologies and evaluate their future potential."

The Financial Times speculates that a move for Sprint to LTE's 4G could mean an eventual merger between Sprint and T-Mobile USA, the struggling subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. That would combine the No. 3 and No. 4 telecoms, providing serious competition for Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Verizon and AT&T have pledged support of LTE. Though it hasn't announced plans, T-Mobile is expected to use LTE.

If Sprint came on board, every network could use nearly identical underpinnings. In this scenario, no longer would there be a technical barrier between, say, using an AT&T-sold iPhone on Verizon or Sprint.

-- Mark Milian

Photo: Sprint Chief Executive Dan Hesse. Credit: Associated Press