T-Minus 36 hours: The Nextel network goes dark (Don’t say you weren’t warned)

Right at 12:01 AM ET on Sunday, Sprint(s s) engineers are going to pull the plug on all of the Nextel network switches around the country. The radio networks will still be live but they won’t be connected to anything, basically imposing radio silence on all of the remaining customers still using the iDEN network.
Later that evening, Sprint will start cutting power to the cell sites, taking radios and base stations offline in a forced rolling blackout heading from east coast to west. At that point, an iDEN phone will stop receiving signals, and its transmissions will find no towers to connect to. After that, Sprint will begin decommissioning its backhaul links to iDEN-only cell sites.
By the end of Sunday, Sprint will be left with one gigantic but very dead network.
There are a lot of people with iDEN phones that are going to wake up to find themselves disconnected. At Sprint’s last earnings call in April, that number was 1.3 million. According to Sprint spokesman Mark Bonavia, that number is a lot smaller today, though he wouldn’t give an exact figure.
“A lot of customers have migrated off the iDEN network since then,” he said. “Some have come over to Sprint Direct Connect. Others have gone elsewhere.”
And frankly, if you’re surprised by this, you really haven’t been paying attention. Sprint has been talking publicly about the iDEN shutdown since 2010, and for the last year its been sending its customers warning notices. Sprint has used the carrot to lure customers over to its CDMA network, offering them free and discounted phones. And its used the stick: in January it started charging Nextel customers a $10 monthly fee to keep using the network.
But there are still plenty of stragglers. Many of them are Boost prepaid customers with leftover minutes in their prepaid accounts, but there’s also a still a bunch of contract users (who are obviously no longer on contract) that haven’t left, Bonavia said. Sprint has managed to turn many of the departing into CDMA customers, though. Bonavia said Sprint’s recapture rate is about 46 percent for postpaid customers and 34 percent for prepaid customers.
After the decommissioning, Sprint will spend the rest of this year and early next dismantling the network, creating 45,000 tons of radio infrastructure junk, nearly all of which it plans to recycle. The iDEN network is long past its prime. It’s an old 2G system using proprietary technology that was only kept on life support because of the usefulness of its push-to-talk walkie-talkie service.
Still, the network geek in me is sad to see it go. There are only a handful of truly nationwide cellular networks in the country – building one is an epic accomplishment. Starting Sunday there will be one less.