There's been a lot of talk in the wireless industry about how to leverage information about subscribers, their data consumption and their use of mobile applications. As demonstrated at 4G World, many in the industry believe that wireless operators can use the information latent in their networks to manage and monetize skyrocketing data traffic.

Sprint appears to have taken that message to heart, at least to judge by its recent network modernization announcement, which tapped Ericsson, Samsung and Alcatel-Lucent to upgrade its network in key markets. The carrier says all three vendors will be supplying it with equipment targeted at making their network smarter.

Jean-Pierre Lartigue, vice president of wireless networks marketing and strategy at Alcatel-Lucent, says built-in network intelligence will be a key part of Alcatel-Lucent's work with Sprint on the operator's $5 billion network modernization project.

Alcatel-Lucent is providing Sprint with its 9900 Wireless Network Guardian, a network intelligence tool that can monitor every subscriber session from within the packet core to provide a real-time view of subscriber usage, helping to identify network bottlenecks and data hogs. Alcatel-Lucent says the 9900 will allow Sprint to "analyze and optimize the relationship between application traffic, network performance and subscriber experience."

"We're bringing together the wireless intelligence with state-of-the-art IP capabilities to make the right priority calls in the network," Lartigue says. "It lets operators surgically improve capacity in locations that are struggling."

Ericsson and Samsung are also providing Sprint with equipment similar to Alcatel-Lucent's network intelligence gear, a Sprint spokeswoman said.

The vendors are also providing Sprint with base stations, management services and microwave backhaul. Microwave backhaul is growing its presence in the United States, which has historically favored fiber or copper backhaul.

Clearwire helped pave the way for increased use of microwave backhaul by using the technology in its mobile WiMAX network. Microwave can be easier and cheaper to deploy than fiber or copper, but can suffer from interference from certain atmospheric conditions. Microwave backhaul vendors like DragonWave say the issues around atmospheric interference have been resolved.

Sprint's $5 billion network modernization plan involves using multimode base stations that combine services running on its 800 MHz spectrum, 1.9 GHz spectrum and, through its relationship with Clearwire, 2.5 GHz spectrum. Sprint will shut down its iDEN network by 2013 and plans to repurpose some of its 800 MHz spectrum for CDMA to boost in-building coverage.

At a UBS conference yesterday, Sprint network operations President Steven Elfman said the company would begin deploying its new base stations after it completes its field integration testing. The bulk of Sprint's network modernization build will happen in 2012 and 2013.

Elfman also said the base stations, which incorporate bandwidth at 1900 MHz, 800 MHz and 2.5 GHz, will support CDMA, WiMAX and LTE. Clearwire would be able to leverage Sprint's infrastructure to improve its WiMAX network, which operates in the 2.5 GHz band. The company plans to begin selling handsets for its new combined 800 MHz and 1900 MHz service at the end of its field integration testing toward the latter part of next year, Elfman said. The company's iDEN customers will be encouraged to switch over to CDMA with new phones, offers and promotions before Sprint shuts off iDEN in 2013.