Sprint reshuffles networks team: Saw promoted, Elfman and Azzi to leave company

Sprint's (NYSE:S) team of technology and networks executives is receiving a major shakeup, with Steve Elfman, president of network operations at Sprint, and Bob Azzi, the carrier's senior vice president of networks, leaving the company. Meantime, John Saw, Clearwire's former CTO, has been promoted to Chief Network Officer of Sprint. Saw had previously been Sprint's senior vice president of technical architecture.

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Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter confirmed the changes to FierceWireless. Azzi announced his retirement; his last day will be March 14. There is no date set yet for when Elfman will retire, she said. "Historically Sprint does not comment on personnel moves. Bob and Sprint reached a mutual understanding and Bob will be leaving," Sprint said in a statement. "He is very actively engaged with the team to ensure a smooth transition of responsibility and we wish him well."

Schlageter said the changes are effective immediately, and said some of Azzi's former organization will now report to Stephen Bye, Sprint's CTO.

The changes come as Sprint is finishing up its Network Vision network modernization, which involves the wholesale upgrade of Sprint's CDMA network and the deployment of LTE. Sprint is also deploying its tri-band LTE service, dubbed Sprint Spark. Schlageter said the "Network Vision and Spark deployments will continue on schedule."

As Reuters noted, Sprint refused to comment on the reasons for the departure of Azzi, who is 57. Elfman, a longtime industry executive, has known Sprint CEO Dan Hesse for years and worked with Hesse at two previous ventures--AT&T Wireless and Terabeam--before joining forces with him again at Sprint.

Sprint's Network Vision deployment has taken longer than expected, and its schedule was delayed by a quarter. Sprint had originally aimed to have 250 million POPs covered with LTE by the end of 2013 but that was lowered to 200 million. Sprint has said poor execution by its network vendor partners in the latter part of 2012 was part of what caused the delay.

Spark, announced in October, is a wireless service that will work via the combination of Sprint's 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz LTE spectrum. The technology will combine Sprint's FDD-LTE network in its 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz spectrum and its planned TD-LTE network in its 2.5 GHz spectrum. Sprint also intends to use carrier aggregation technology in the 2.5 GHz band to implement Spark and deliver 50-60 Mbps speeds.

Sprint expects to cover 250 million POPs by mid-2014 on its 1900 MHz LTE spectrum. The company has also started deploying LTE in its 800 MHz spectrum, which was freed up from the closure of its Nextel iDEN network. Sprint aims to have 150 million POPs covered with 800 MHz LTE by the end of 2014. As for its 2.5 GHz spectrum, Sprint expects to cover 100 million POPs with 2.5 GHz LTE by the end of 2014. 

Saw has deep experience with 2.5 GHz spectrum, since Clearwire's service ran on those airwaves. The 2.5 GHz deployment as part of Spark uses radios that have capabilities for 8 Transmitters 8 Receivers (8T8R), which Sprint has said will be a first deployment of its kind in North America. The carrier has said the radios will be capable of improved coverage, capacity and speeds when compared to the more traditional 2T2R or 4T4R radios used by competitors.

By the end of this year, 100 million Americans are expected to have Sprint Spark coverage. Today, Sprint Spark launched in Philadelphia and Baltimore and, with the recent launch in Kansas City, is currently available in 14 markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk said that Sprint's ability to differentiate is based on its ability to deploy TD-LTE and deliver faster speeds. However, he said that that is not happening right now. "Without comparable speeds, let alone better speeds, and because they're not lower-priced like [T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS)], this is why they're losing customers," he told FierceWireless. He said Saw should have been promoted soon after Softbank closed its deal with Sprint last summer, not now.

Elfman said on Sprint's fourth-quarter earnings conference call on Feb. 11 that "by mid-year, we expect to begin overlaying the 2.5 GHz on our existing network as the new 8T8R radios are available."

"Sprint's opportunity is in the differentiated speeds they can offer in launching TD-LTE," Piecyk said. "But TD-LTE is not a getting rolled out as fast as many had hoped. They need to get TD-LTE deployed as quickly as possible."

For more:
- see this Reuters article

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