NEW YORK (AP) _ In a $1.1 billion upgrade announced Monday, Sprint Corp. will begin to transform its entire telephone network so all voice calls are transmitted in ``packets,'' resembling how data is moved on the Internet.
Nortel Networks is providing switch equipment and installation services for the four-year project.
The conversion will move 3.6 million of Sprint's 8.3 million local lines from hard-wired circuits to a more flexible packet network, while cutting the number of Sprint's main network switches from 125 to 32, said Mark Chall, Sprint's vice president for packet networks.
``Packetization'' technology enables voice and data traffic to be broken into digital pieces, or packets, that are sent separately across the network and reassembled upon arrival.
The technology upgrade will allow multiple phone calls and Internet connections to share the same line. Sprint says it will make its network easier to maintain and enable future services like video conferencing and video caller ID.
On today's telephone networks, ``once you open a connection between point A and B, it's locked. You can't use it,'' said Frank Plastina, president of Nortel's Metro Networks division. ``In the packet world, those packets don't have to be run on the same routes. They can be disassembled and reassembled at the end.''
Sprint expects to convert the rest of its local telephone network _ which operates in 18 states _ in two more phases over the next eight years, Chall said.
The move will trigger a local telephone rate increase in one of Sprint's 18 states. Chall declined to identify the state. Old rotary dial and pulse telephones will still function on the new network, he said.
The upgrade will also allow 90 percent of Sprint's local customers to receive high bandwidth Internet digital subscriber line, or DSL, service, Chall said.
Sprint's moves are intended to fend off competition from other carriers and separate technologies.
``We have a variety of competitors out there, from satellite and wireless to cable TV,'' Chall said. ``They're all interested in all of our customers.''
Nortel will begin shipping the equipment in the current quarter, with the new switches being integrated into the network as they are installed next year.
Sprint offers local phone service in Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Jersey.