Sprint’s Direct Connect now works on 2G, tripling its coverage

Sprint CDMA coverage: the dark green represent Sprint’s 3G networks

Sprint(s s) wants its Nextel customers to move to its CDMA network so it can hasten the inevitable retirement of its old iDEN systems. To coax customers over, Sprint is offering them three times the coverage they currently get with their Nextel phones. Sprint said today it has expanded its CDMA-powered Direct Connect push-to-talk service to its entire 2G footprint.

The new Direct Connect extends Nextel’s old walkie-talkie service to Sprint’s IP-based CDMA data network, using a technology developed by Qualcomm called QChat. Formerly that meant Direct Connect were reliant on an 3G EV-DO connection, but Sprint now believes that its 2G CDMA 1X network has the bandwidth oomph to support QChat’s VoIP connections.

Sprint, however, warned that the experience over 2G won’t be quite the same. Initiating a Direct Connect session – that initial chirp – will take longer on a 1X network, but Sprint said once that session is established, call response times will return to normal.

Nextel iDEN coverage

While Sprint has built its 3G network to cover most of the U.S. population, that population tends to be clustered in cities and towns. In the great spaces in between, Sprint has relied primarily on its own 2G network as well as the networks of its roaming partners to augment its coverage. By supporting Direct Connect over 1X, Sprint said its geographical coverage has increased by a factor of three compared to that available to its Nextel iDEN systems. The enhancement is significant though, since a good deal of its push-to-talk users tend to be emergency personnel and field workers that find themselves working in the big spaces between population centers.

Sprint plans to shut down the iDEN network completely as soon as June 30, 2013, giving its Nextel customers one year to either move onto the CDMA network or find another carrier. In 2014, Sprint will refarm those iDEN 800 MHz airwaves for its LTE network. In the meantime, Sprint has been culling cell sites from its iDEN footprints and has discontinued selling iDEN devices through most sales channels.