By Sally Voth
Shentel has spent 2012 closing the generation gap.
Since July, the Edinburg-based telecommunications firm has been converting its 513 cell sites to Sprint's 4G network, said Tom Whitaker, vice president of operations for Shentel.
Shentel is a Sprint affiliate, he explained, and provides coverage as far north as Pennsylvania and south to the Rockingham/Augusta county line. The Sprint stores within that footprint are Shentel stores with Shentel employees, Whitaker said.
"To the casual observer, they would not realize that there was a relationship between Shentel and Sprint," he said. "That's exactly how Sprint wants it."
Shentel also builds and owns the network used by Sprint customers, according to Whitaker.
The 513 cell sites are on towers, poles, water tanks, power company transmission towers and roof tops, he said.
"Last year, Sprint announced that they were going to upgrade their network to the next evolution of wireless networks," Whitaker said.
That fourth generation -- 4G -- of wireless networks "is an all IP-based network," he said. That means much higher capacity for devices, particularly smart phones, Whitaker said.
"The data speeds are much higher [than 3G]," he said.
The first generation of cell phones were analog, with digital phones being 2G, according to www.pcmag.com.
"We have aggressively over the course of this year rolled out Sprint's plan for 4G, which they call Network Vision," he said.
That includes LTE -- long-term evolution -- technology, according to Whitaker.
"It's a very high-speed, IP-enabled network that provides very fast data speeds for your smartphone," he said. "Of [Shentel's] 513 [cell sites], we've converted 214 to the new Network Vision cell site. Of those, 214, 156 as of Friday have been enabled for 4G. We have got to get the base station changed out. There's nothing on the site you can salvage."
It costs about $250,000 per site to do the upgrades, which brings the project to nearly $130 million, according to Whitaker. Besides the cost, the upgrades come at the temporary expense of the subscriber.
"Every single day, there are a couple of sites where we are swapping the old base station for the new base station," said Whitaker.
During that process, known as a forklift upgrade, the cell site is down, he said.
"That's been unfortunate for our customers," Whitaker said. "But for us to be able to stay out there with a product that kind of meets the market demands, you've got to break some eggs to make an omelet. In this case, it's a very good omelet."
He said it's hoped the 4G will be ready at all of the cell sites by mid to late summer.
"We appreciate people's patience as we upgrade the network and are taking cell sites on and off the air," Whitaker said. "We wish there was another way to do it, but there's not -- to do it safely and quickly. Everything from the top of the antenna to the base station on the ground is being completely replaced."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org