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U.S. wireless firms share plans, cost

In a cost-cutting move expected to be replicated by most U.S. carriers, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless are sharing future plans and teaming to build and share cell phone towers.

In a cost-cutting move expected to be replicated by most U.S. carriers, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless are teaming to build and share cell phone towers, the lifeblood of a cellular phone network.

The agreement, announced by the companies Tuesday, calls for a level of cooperation that so far is unheard of--including sharing information about where current towers are located, plus future construction plans. The idea is to find areas of overlap, such as a town where both carriers had intended to build towers separately.

Building and maintaining towers are among the most expensive tasks for cellular carriers trying to stretch their networks from one coast to the next. Analysts began speculating in 2001 that U.S. carriers, then as now facing extreme economic conditions, would take after their European counterparts, which all began sharing network build-out costs to avoid buckling from intense financial pressures.

"We will not be victims of the cost animal," AT&T Wireless Executive Vice President Greg Slemons said Tuesday.

Analyst Joe Laszlo of Jupiter Research expects most U.S. carriers to follow suit, especially in rural areas, where it's difficult and costly to expand a telephone network.

"Carriers will be a little more reluctant to share towers in urban areas, because it's important to have coverage as a differentiator," Laszlo said. "But as they try to push networks further out, and increase covered areas, we're likely to see sharing on some level."

The notion of giant companies sharing the same resources, and possibly shutting out others, will likely raise concerns of regulators about anticompetitive behavior, Laszlo added.

"But given the costs of building out and increasing coverage, it does merit some regulatory flexibility in letting them share the infrastructure," Laszlo said.

The first U.S. carriers to share construction duties were Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile, forming a partnership known as VoiceStream Wireless when it was announced, Oct. 15, 2001.

That deal also involved the shared building of new cell sites, plus spectrum and infrastructure in certain markets, including California and New York City. But it didn't include revealing future plans, as the arrangement between AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS does.