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What exactly is Sprint doing?

After it announcing it would move all voice calls off Nextel's iDEN network, Sprint now appears to be doing just the opposite.

Is it just me, or is Sprint really trying to confuse the heck out of everyone? When the carrier merged with Nextel almost two years ago, everyone in the cell phone world thought it was the oddest of odd couples, and it was. Not only did the two companies operate incompatible networks (Nextel had its signature iDEN service while Sprint used CDMA), but also they attracted different consumer segments. Though at the time Sprint promised that it would be a "merger of equals," Nextel fans weren't so sure. How would the combined company integrate the two carriers without alienating either customer group? Nextel loyalists, which are some of the most fiercely loyal customers around, had the worst doomsday scenarios. Would Sprint eliminate Nextel's popular Direct Connect push-to-talk services and force them onto Sprint's inferior (as they saw it) CDMA service? They were all good questions, and at first Sprint didn't reveal much right away.

The Motorola i530, now that's a Nextel phone CNET Networks

But before long some Nextel customers began to smell trouble. Sprint announced that it would continue to operate the iDEN network through at least 2010, but eventually it hoped to migrate all Nextel users over to the CDMA network for voice calls. Sprint already operated its own PTT network called Ready Link, which Nextel customers could use, and it promised that its new 3G EV-DO network would be a unifier between the two technologies.

The Motorola i355 could take a licking CNET Networks

As for phones, Sprint also tried address concerns that it would abandon Nextel's line of rugged, durable Motorola phones that Nextel customers loved. It highlighted some Sanyo handsets that, while not built like a tank like some Nextel models, were built to last. But the biggest change would come later in 2006 when Sprint introduced new dual-mode handsets. Though they used the iDEN network for PTT calls, Voice calls ran on CDMA. The first such model, the Motorola ic502, was a bit of a dud, but the ic902 which came in July 2007 was a solid device. On the outside the two handsets looked like Nextel phones, except for the Sprint logo, but it when it came down to it, they're weren't Nextel devices. At the same time, a trickle of iDEN-only phones continued to appear, such as the high-quality i580.

The Motorola ic902, change was on the way CNET Networks

In some surprising developments since November of last year, after all the promises of ending voice calls on the iDEN network, Sprint introduced two new handsets that are pure Nextel phones. The Motorola i335 and Motorola i570 use only iDEN for voice and PTT calls, and they look and feel like the Nextel phones of the pre-merger era. Both are tough as nails with simple, functional feature sets and reliable call quality. Compared with the Motorola i880, which brought a much-needed high-resolution display and multimedia features to Nextel, the i335 and i570 almost resemble antiques.

So what exactly is Sprint doing? Is it quietly admitting that a move to bury iDEN isn't working? Some analysts seem to think so. Interestingly, Sprint spokeswoman Amy Schiska-Lombard told RCR Wireless News that Sprint "has no plans to shutter its iDEN network." While that's always been the case essentially, the company did express a desire to end voice iDEN calls. No, that's not the same thing, but it almost is. What's more, Sprint has sent Ready Link to the graveyard in favor of Direct Connect, which was always better anyway.

The Motorola i570, back to basics CNET Networks

It's no secret that Sprint is having a tough time lately. Just in the last year it lost 1.2 million customers. Sprint has admitted that many were former iDEN customers. It's no secret that the merger (like so many before it) presented Sprint with some significant hurdles.

It certainly looks as if Sprint is trying to remedy its situation by breathing new life into the Nextel brand. In the process, Sprint seems to be going back on its original plans. The renewed emphasis on iDEN and the introduction of two very Nextel phones within a couple months of each other are a testament to that. Though they're not pretty to look at, and they're almost a step backwards in cell phone design evolution, the i335 and i570 are good performers. They offer all the phone features that Nextel fans clamor for. The very fact that they exist at this point in time seems to be a sign that someone wants them.