Meet the CTOs in wireless: Sprint’s John Saw

Sprint’s John Saw

This story is part of a broader Meet the CTOs feature that introduces all of the major network operator CTOs across the wireless, telecom and cable industries. To read about top network CTOs from other companies, click here.

Who he is: John Saw helped develop TDMA, GSM and CDMA technologies during stints at Bell Northern Research and Nortel, then oversaw the development and rollout of AT&T Wireless’s Digital Broadband service from 1997 to 2002 as chief engineer and VP of engineering. He then initiated the deployment of Netro Corp.’s broadband wireless products in Europe, and as CTO at Clearwire he led the team that built the first WiMAX network in North America.

Saw holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Canada’s McMaster University as well as six U.S patents related to wireless technologies.

Where he is: Saw is responsible for the technology development and network planning, engineering, deployment and service assurance of Sprint’s network, and he reports to Günther Ottendorfer, Sprint COO of technology. Saw’s 17 direct reports cover areas including national network development and engineering, technology innovation, strategic initiatives, spectrum, and small cell strategy and architecture.

What he’s doing: Perhaps no CTO in wireless is under a bigger microscope than Sprint’s John Saw. Saw oversees the carrier’s “Densification and Optimization strategy,” which essentially means that he’s in charge of ensuring Sprint’s network keeps pace with those of its competitors as the U.S. industry prepares to deploy next-generation technologies and networks.

There’s little doubt that Saw’s efforts have been largely successful so far. Sprint’s network was once its biggest vulnerability, largely contributing to it being overcome by T-Mobile last year as the third-largest mobile network operator in the U.S. But the operator has largely caught up to its rivals in terms of both coverage and capacity. A recent report from J.D. Power found Sprint ranked second for wireless network quality performance in five out of six U.S. geographic regions; the same firm said Sprint finished last in every region “by a large margin” in an August 2014 study, as the carrier concedes.

But Sprint’s network capex has fallen far short of analysts’ expectations in recent quarters, leading analysts to question whether the carrier can continue to provide quality service as mobile data consumption soars. Earlier this year Sprint said it planned to spend $3 billion on network capex in 2016, well short of the $4.5 billion analysts had estimated, and recently it indicated its network investment may not reach even its own previous guidance for the year.

Sprint maintains that its strategy of aggressively deploying small cells will enable it to keep costs down as it meets ever-increasing usage. Its surprisingly low network capex investment can be traced in part to challenges the overall market for small cells has faced in its early days, executives have said, and network spending will ramp up again as that market evolves beyond its early challenges in siting and backhaul. Indeed, Sprint said recently that its small cell deployments doubled in the most recent quarter over the previous quarter as permitting headaches and other hurdles have been overcome.

And the carrier points to the success its parent company SoftBank has seen in deploying small cells in Japan. Saw works closely with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son as the U.S. operator works to duplicate SoftBank’s success in densifying its network.

Meanwhile, while the other three major U.S. wireless carriers are participating in the FCC’s ongoing incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves, Sprint is eschewing the auction in favor of deploying services on spectrum it already owns. The carrier holds more than 160 MHz of valuable 2.5 GHz spectrum in some of the biggest markets in the country, a trove of airwaves the carrier claims will allow it to offer more network capacity than any of its rivals.

Indeed, 70 percent of Sprint’s POPs are now covered by its 2.5 GHz spectrum, and the operator is placing big bets that those spectrum licenses will give it an edge as 5G offerings come to market.

“On top of Network Vision, in the last two years we have also added a lot of 2.5 GHz carriers to our cell sites,” Saw said recently, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. “That really has moved the needle in terms of how our data speeds have improved. We also added a lot of 800 MHz as well to improve coverage, especially indoors. And then we rolled out carrier aggregation last year, two-channel CA, and now we’re also rolling out three-channel CA. Those have a big impact as well on the customer experience.”