Sprint CTO: “The growth in usage we have seen represents an Apollo 13 moment for service providers”

Stephen Bye, is CTO and vice president of technology development & strategy for Sprint, the third largest wireless operator in the United States. Ahead of his appearance at the LTE World Summit, taking place on the 23-24 May 2012 at the CCIB, Barcelona, Spain, we speak to him about Sprint’s LTE launch plans, the progress being made on its Network Vision plan and how Sprint is moving forward without LightSquared.

What are the main milestones you have reached with relation to your LTE deployment?

We have executed against our major 3G and 4G technical milestones. The detailed deployment and resource plans have been completed by our three vendors and they have been staffing up to meet the build-out demand. We are well under way on leasing, zoning and tower construction on our 38,000 sites, with a goal of having 12,000 higher density sites on air by the end of the year. In addition, we expect that approximately 9,600 Nextel platform sites will be decommissioned by the end of 2012 and we expect that the build will be largely completed by the end of 2013. Our agreements with the major tower companies were also finalized in Q4.

During the fourth quarter, our first true multi-modal permanent site went on air. Additionally, the first cluster of cell sites launched and they are meeting our performance and coverage targets. Overall, the development and deployment of the network is proceeding within our budget targets.

Since January we announced six major markets scheduled to launch LTE in the first half of 2012. In addition, we announced our first three LTE device launches which are expected to launch during the first half of 2012, and we have been launching phones that are 800 band class 10 compatible since the middle of last year. This means that as we redeploy our 800 spectrum, many of our customers should get an immediate and very noticeable benefit.

What are the main challenges you have faced, or expect to face, as you roll out LTE?

The main challenge we see is more related to the need to build out 3G capacity to meet the continuing growth in 3G usage, while we are in the process of deploying LTE. We would like to move the majority of this growth over to LTE as fast as we can to take advantage of this capacity and the improved spectral efficiency of LTE.

As with all network builds, site zoning and approvals pose some execution risk.  Considerable progress has been made on Network Vision.  Since being announced in December of 2010, Sprint and its vendors have achieved many technical milestones (e.g., test calls, field integration testing, etc.), begun work on cell sites, solidified tower company agreements, launched Sprint Direct Connect on the CDMA network and prepped for new device launches, including the iPhone.

How will you be moving forward with your Network Vision programme without LightSquared?

The termination of our LightSquared agreement has no impact to Sprint’s current customers and is not material to Sprint’s ongoing business. LightSquared was neither a critical component of our Network Vision program nor a dependency for our LTE strategy to be successful.

Where do you stand on the issue of OTT players contributing to the costs of deploying networks?

We have been a long-time advocate of open networks and systems. The OTT players have brought tremendous product and service innovation to wireless and they have certainly stimulated the significant growth in usage we have seen in recent years. It is definitely a challenge and this represents an Apollo 13 moment for service providers like us. This is where innovation and creativity are required and for engineers like me, we welcome such challenges.

To what extent can LTE provide an insurance against declining revenue streams from voice and SMS?

As a proponent of simplicity, convenience and unlimited data, we see LTE primarily as a faster, more efficient radio access technology and the key to meet demand more cost effectively. There are other core technologies and systems we are deploying in conjunction with LTE, which will enable us to open up access to more network services and APIs. This should help to unlock opportunities for additional revenue streams.

Is there a place moving forward for unlimited data tariffs? Are they sustainable?

Yes, we believe in focusing on the customer experience. Simplicity, convenience and unlimited data are key to meeting our customers’ expectations.  Unfortunately, many analysts focus only on selected network related costs. It is important to look at the end-to-end customer cost of not offering unlimited. There are real incremental costs related to billing, customer care and service credits.

What’s your view on FDD vs TD-LTE spectrum?

We support the use of both. Their use is linked to specific spectrum allocations. We are using FDD-LTE with Band 25 and Band 26, while we are also working very closely with Clearwire on Band 41 TDD-LTE.

Do you think that VoLTE will have an impact and if so in what time frame?

It is still in the early days for VoLTE. These types of technology changes inevitably take longer than many expect. It is a significant change to the voice networks, devices and services we have all deployed.

Is there enough innovation occurring in the mobile network industry? Can you provide some examples?

As we look at the impact mobile services may have on many consumers and businesses there is even more opportunity for innovation.  A January 2012 Rutberg & Co. analysis stated that in 2011, over US$6bn of venture capital funding was invested worldwide in the mobile technology and services sector and increased materially from 2010. We continue to see hundreds of start-ups in this sector, which is very exciting. Key for us is to be open and enable new business models, innovations, and products and services to be brought to market by our partners. Some carriers have suggested creating a toll gate for developers and that is a misstep towards stifling innovation in this industry.

What changes would you hope to see in the industry in the next five years?

We would like to see more cost effective spectrum made available for our LTE deployments as this will enable us to meet the needs of our customer demand for data services.  We would also like to see even more open services, devices, networks and systems to unlock opportunities for greater value.

The LTE World Summit is taking place on the 23-24 May 2012 CCIB, Barcelona, Spain. Click here to register your interest.


  1. Avatar Bill Esrey 30/03/2012 @ 5:21 pm

    Apollo 13? As in “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”? As in an aborted mission where the crew barely returned to Earth alive? That Apollo 13?

    • Avatar Benny Har-Even 03/04/2012 @ 1:50 pm

      Hi Bill. I believe that an “Apollo 13 moment” is one when “something so awesome happens that the only way to express your joy is to yell “wooo hooo” like Jack Swigert does after he learns of his mission.” Or so tells us.

      One could argue that the example of things going badly wrong and then being saved at the last minute could be an apt comparison for Sprint – if you’re of an optimistic bent that is. Time will tell!

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