Sprint CTO: No apologies for network, which suffered from years of underinvestment

Sprint
Despite its troubles, Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum is a very important asset. (Sprint)

NEW YORK—Many of the problems that Sprint is experiencing are a direct result of its network, an area that Sprint CTO John Saw now oversees in terms of planning and engineering, but he’s not operating in defense mode or making apologies.

Rather, he matter-of-factly points out that Sprint has suffered from years of underinvestment, and that’s not something under his control.

In a 47-page filing (PDF) with the FCC earlier this month, Sprint laid out all the reasons it so desperately needs to merge with T-Mobile, and many of those are tied directly to its network. Sprint said the lack of low-band spectrum is at the root of its problems, and that can’t be fixed because there’s no low-band spectrum available for it to buy. T-Mobile, of course, has a bevy of 600 MHz spectrum that it’s using to build a nationwide 5G network.

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Asked about his role, Saw, whose career in wireless dates back to the OFDM-based AT&T Wireless days and before that, Nortel, said it’s not so much a defense or an apology. “If you look at the history of Sprint, the network has suffered from years of underinvestment,” he told FierceWirelessTech on the sidelines of the Brooklyn 5G Summit. Saw is the former CTO of Clearwire, which Sprint acquired in 2013.

It’s also a question of how much an operator can afford to invest in a network when it doesn’t have enough scale, “so it’s like a chicken-and-egg, vicious cycle,” he said. “For years I realized that I am not able to invest as much as my competitors, especially Verizon and AT&T,” so Sprint needs to be smart in terms of what it does invest in.

The use of monopoles was an attempt to build sites cheaper, but jurisdictions were not ready for them, and it took too long to get approvals. It’s only recently that the FCC took steps to reduce barriers to deployment. “When we started, it was even more difficult,” he said.

After the monopole plan didn’t work out, Sprint then pivoted to a more traditional build using existing towers, “but it’s no secret that because of years of underinvestment, we have the smallest footprint,” he added, noting that is why it has to sign expensive roaming agreements. To remain competitive as a nationwide provider, “we do have to roam a lot more than the competition.”

Sprint also has less than half the low-band spectrum of its competitors, “so it’s very hard for me to get the consistency in coverage that I need and also capacity in low-band coverage with so little spectrum,” Saw said. Sprint did not bid in the 600 MHz auction because it couldn’t afford to do so.

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“We’re not saying it’s a complete end of the world for Sprint, but Sprint is going to be handicapped moving forward,” and it would have to find ways to solve or account for its shortcomings unless the merger is approved, he said. With the proposed merger, “I think some of the stronger Sprint assets, like 2.5 [GHz], can be put to better use. When you couple the 2.5 coverage with T-Mobile’s 600 [MHz], it’s basically a match made in heaven.”

When the 800 MHz spectrum was originally distributed, AT&T and Verizon got the lion’s share of it. Sprint got some 800 MHz spectrum from the acquisition of Nextel, but not nearly as much compared to what the two big rivals possess. “I’m not trying to apologize for the network," he said, noting that everyone is trying to make lemonade from whatever they have, but he believes a merger would be a better utilization of the assets.

Saw, who has been involved in every “G” in wireless, has not revealed what his role will be if the merger is approved, and he declined to comment on that score on Wednesday.

But he's now on top of the midband spectrum world in a sense—the wireless industry is clamoring for more midband spectrum for 5G, and in a lot of ways, it’s slim pickings, although the FCC and others are working to change that.

“Now is our time,” he said. “We’re sitting on a very important asset,” which he acknowledged was years in the making. Saw was the second employee at Clearwire, where the team set out to stitch together a 2.5 GHz network, reaching out to schools and other institutions for long-term lease agreements. “It was painstakingly difficult to talk to every school district, church. … It was like putting together thousands of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Everybody laughed at us. But I think it’s paying off. It is one of the world’s largest LTE global ecosystems today.”

Researchers at places like NYU Wireless, one of the hosts of this week’s summit, are now eyeing spectrum above 95 GHz, an area Saw said he’s glad they’re investigating. “They do have a lot challenges to solve, but I am so glad they are actually thinking about it,” he said. “We’ll need it for short-range, super high capacity, low latency applications.”

Saw’s keynote at the Wednesday summit revolved around the power of Massive MIMO and Band 41 5G New Radio (NR), which Sprint can use to cover all 50 stories of a hotel in Manhattan, for example. “You cannot do that with a legacy antenna,” he said.

Sprint has the right 2.5 GHz spectrum and enough of it to enable both LTE and 5G NR on the same hardware. But he made sure to include a pitch for the proposed merger with T-Mobile in his presentation. “We have very complementary assets,” and “together we can build a bigger and much better 5G network than each of us can build on our own,” he said.

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