The first base station for Sprint's massive $5 billion network upgrade project went live in Branchburg, N.J., Monday as the operator prepares to move forward with its LTE plans.

The base station runs LTE, CDMA 1X EVDO and will also be compatible with LightSquared's planned mobile broadband network, Sprint CFO Joe Euteneuer said during an investor conference yesterday.

"This is really the start of Network Vision," Euteneuer said at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, referring to Sprint's network modernization effort. "We have the first one up, operational and running just fine."

The equipment is cheaper to run than Sprint's legacy gear, which uses separate equipment to run each of its services. The base stations also use up less space, have improved remote radio heads and use fiber instead of coaxial cable.

Sprint estimates the new equipment will save it up to $11 billion over the next seven years on reduced costs for energy, roaming, backhaul and an eventual reduction in the number of cell sites.

About 22,000 of the base stations are slated to be deployed by Sprint's vendors for the project: Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung. The LTE network is slated to cover 120 million people by the end of next year and 250 million people by the end of 2013.

The equipment will also allow Sprint to host other companies' spectrum on its gear.

LightSquared has already hired Sprint to deploy and operate its hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband network but can't move forward with the deal until it resolves problems with GPS interference. The venture-backed firm has already forked over $290 million in prepayments to Sprint for the deal, which will cost LightSquared $9 billion in cash over the next 11 years.

The newly launched base station is compliant with LightSquared's service, Euteneuer said. Delays in the FCC's approval process shouldn't be problematic, he said, since the new base stations can support new antennas after they're installed. Adding support for LightSquared's spectrum won't require Sprint to rip out and replace its base stations.

Sprint said when it unveiled its network upgrade strategy in October that it plans to operate LTE in its 1900 MHz G-block spectrum and on some of the 800 MHz spectrum currently used for its iDEN service, which is being phased out in favor of a CDMA-based push-to-talk service. Sprint's CDMA network runs on a separate portion of its 1900 MHz airwaves. The company told reporters during a briefing at 4G World later that month that it will eventually move to LTE Advanced, which offers faster speeds than the preceding technology.

The first handsets for the LTE network will show up in the "last half of 2012," Euteneuer said. He wouldn't talk specifics about timing or devices but said Sprint would release "a number of different models" for the service. The operator had previously said it will launch 15 dual-mode CDMA-LTE devices by the middle of next year.

Euteneuer also touched on Sprint's recently launched iPhone and its relationship with Clearwire.

There have been some reports that the iPhone is causing congestion on Sprint's network. Euteneuer said Sprint has a "myopic" focus on the performance of its network and was making adjustments to improve coverage and capacity.

"The last thing we want to do now that we have this iconic device is disappoint people," he said.

Clearwire announced Monday that it was selling additional stock to help raise money to construct its TD-LTE network, which Sprint will use to boost its own LTE network. Sprint will contribute to the funding round, a sign of a marked improvement in the companies' relationship.

"We're really finally in the mode where we're bringing a true partnership together for the long term," Euteneuer said.