Stephen Bye: Sprint's Network Visionary

Don't let the laidback Australian-turned-Brit with a Midwestern twang accent fool you. Stephen Bye has one of the toughest jobs -- with the most riding on it -- in the entire North American wireless industry.

As the CTO of Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), he has the whole world watching to see if he can complete the carrier's Network Vision. Even more daunting, he also has Masayoshi Son, the heavy-handed new owner and CEO of SoftBank Corp. , watching. And Son isn't one to keep his views on Sprint's upper management to himself. (See SoftBank's Son Keeps Sprint on Short Leash.)

Bye, who will be a keynote speaker at Light Reading's Big Telecom Event (BTE) in Chicago this June, also wears the hat of Sprint's vice president of technology development and corporate strategy. That means he's not only responsible for driving corporate and technology strategy, network architecture, and global standards. He's also responsible for running Sprint's innovation center and emerging technology lab in Kansas City and Silicon Valley, as well as being the lead for new business and service model development for the carrier.

Sprint CTO Stephen Bye

Stephen Bye will be a keynote speaker at The Big Telecom Event (BTE), June 17/18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.

Stephen Bye will be a keynote speaker at The Big Telecom Event (BTE), June 17/18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.

What's more, following some management shuffling that will see Bob Azzi, senior vice president of networks, and Steve Elfman, president of network and technology, leave the company, Bye is even more on the front lines of Sprint's network building. He and newly appointed chief network officer John Saw are in charge of completing Sprint's Network Vision, including its LTE TDD overlay, and a planned 4G small cell deployment. And, of course, there's the possibility of having to manage a potential merger with T-Mobile US Inc. . (See John Saw to Become Sprint Network Boss.)

It's a tall order for a carrier that is also working to rip and replace its entire legacy network, integrate three disparate bands of spectrum to build a viable LTE network that erases its early bet on WiMax, and keep its customers from fleeing to the competition in the meantime. (See Sprint Feels the Churn Burn Before Spark, Sprint Slips Back in Customer Service, and Sprint Sparks Up Vendors for Faster 4G LTE.)

So is the Australian-born, London-educated network man up for the job? Sprint and SoftBank are certainly betting on it.

Bye's roots are actually in the cable industry, which bodes well for Son's vision of Sprint -- at least, the one he's pitching to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ). Bye spent five years as the vice president of wireless at Cox Communications Inc. , leaving the MSO in March 2011 to join Sprint as vice president of technology development. (See What's Next for Cox Wireless? and Cox Wireless: Soup to Nuts.)

Son spent time this month in Washington telling regulators how abysmal the US broadband situation is and promising Sprint's burgeoning LTE network as a cheap alternative to fixed broadband. Sprint Spark is promising speeds of 1 Gbit/s, and Son says that's enough to compete as a home broadband connection. Of course, some of this is posturing on Son's part as he tries to convince the FCC a merger with T-Mobile is necessary to launch a broadband price war in the US, where the telco-cable duopoly is getting rather cozy. But if that's his ultimate goal, Bye's history in cable makes him the best man for the job of taking on the big cable companies.

Importantly, he has the backing of his peers. "Stephen's broad industry background and deep technical knowledge has been a tremendous asset in moving Sprint forward," Kevin McGinnis, vice president of development and operations at Sprint's customer data-based business unit, Pinsight Media, told us. "His thought leadership, which is really what innovation is all about, has been instrumental in market-facing innovations like Sprint Spark and in internal programs to encourage our employees to be more empowered and entrepreneurial in their everyday jobs." (See Sprint Plays by Its Own Rules, Too.)

Network visions
Despite having all that on his plate, Bye found time to host an event recently in Chicago to fill in local reporters on how he sees the wireless world. He started by admitting that Sprint can never keep up with mobile data use. There are deadlines for Network Vision, but the operator will always be building more infrastructure to support the insatiable growth, he said. That challenge is even greater for Sprint than it is for its competitors, since it is the only US operator still promising unlimited data. (See Sprint Sparks to Reduce Churn, Save Unlimited and Sprint Eyes SDN to Re-Craft Its Core.)

"We look at all the demand in the market from every segment and the applications they consume, then build the best network," Bye said. "As more capacity is made available, the depth of the content gets richer."

The resulting network isn't homogenous. Bye's task right now is updating Network Vision markets with Sprint's layer cake Spark network of 800 MHz spectrum for in-building penetration, 1,900 MHz midband spectrum to reach rural areas, and 2.5 GHz spectrum, which Bye called Sprint's workhorse for capacity and speeds. He said the carrier works on three cell sites a day. This year, it will begin augmenting those macro sites with small cells, both indoors and outdoors. (See Sprint Plans Indoor, Outdoor Small Cells in 2014.)

Next page: Sprint's role in the app world

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DOShea 3/23/2014 | 10:06:04 PM
Management shuffling Maybe with a couple of technology execs leaving, decision-making will become more streamlined, but I wonder what the balance of power is between Bye and Saw (maybe they can bond over being monosyllabicly named?)
Sarah Thomas 3/21/2014 | 10:29:02 AM
Re: And he's still smiling... Ah yes, makes sense. And agreed, Sprint could (eventually) have the best network. Bye and team just have a lot of work to do to get there.
R Clark 3/21/2014 | 10:25:48 AM
Re: And he's still smiling... Sarah, just that Sprint's a bit smaller and pretty much focused on wireless, whereas AT&T and Verizon play in multiple businesses. That said all telcos are pretty bureaucratic.

My main point was that for a network guy ripping out all the Wimax and building out a superfast wireless network to go head to head with wireline broadband would be a lot of fun.

Son is a notoriously demanding boss, though, so maybe not so much fun.
Mitch Wagner 3/20/2014 | 6:37:53 PM
Re: And he's still smiling...

How long will Sprint to be able to continue offering unlimited data, in the face of customers' increasing bandwidth appetites?

While service providers like Sprint enable OTT services like Instagram and Facebook, the value has gone to those OTT services. Is there any way to reverse that trend?

jabailo 3/20/2014 | 1:52:32 PM
Re: Messy Beast No there has been little to no communications at all about Sprint's interaction with my two primary providers, which I find strange.

I would move to Sprint, but they don't seem to have the pure Internet wireless broadband service I get with Clear.   And LTE isn't in the neighborhood where I live (Wimax is!)

My outs are:

(1) Waiting for Sprint to make a move, which I imagine to be a day comes when they say:

(a) Goodbye we don't do Internet any more.  Want a $120 cell phone plan?


(b) Welcome to Sprint...you now get all your phone, Internet, and toothpaste from us

(2) Low cost optical fiber from CenturyLink tempts me, but like all things that sound too good to be true, I've been burned on "wired" technologies before.  I went through two DSL attempts that were total failures (I'm beyond the 14,000 ft limit from the CO) before Clear happened my way and I thought: perfect solution!
Sarah Thomas 3/20/2014 | 1:48:11 PM
Re: Messy Beast Are they making any effort to upgrade you to LTE, or move you from prepaid to postpaid? i'm not surprised if they're not since you're with Virgin, not Sprint, technically, but I would think they would be encouraging you to move away from Clear to Sprint. More lucrative for them and future-proof for you.
jabailo 3/20/2014 | 1:45:17 PM
Messy Beast Sprint is a messy beast.  I'm a Sprint customer in two ways, yet I do not deal directly with the company named Sprint!

My cell phone service is Virgin mobile, a pay as you go service that leases Sprint's cell network.   I like pay as you go, especially as Android phones have come down i price.  My latest cost only $79 on sale, and it has LTE capabilities.  When I'm in an LTE zone, the experience is quite nice.    But wait.  Now Sprint has it's own pay as you go service.   I'm confused...aren't you?

Then there's Clear Wimax.  I've been a Clear customer ever since it started 7 or 8 years ago.  Their service received enourmous browbeating for slow speeds and shaky connections.  But you know what?  My experience has been fast speeds and 5-bar connections and little throttling.   While my cable compatriots complain of not being able to use Netflix, I use it all the time!   

For a while Sprint was a consortium of companies that pooled together to invest in Wimax.  Then Sprint stepped in as an exclusive partner.  Then it absorbed the whole thing.  But did it come to praise Clear (expand it) or bury it (take over the wavelenghts and turn it back to mobile phone use).

Right now my Clear/Sprint service is in a state of hiatus.  It still runs (great).  I can still get support, although they no longer sell the equipment.  I have to go on eBay or Amazon to get a replacement modem or hotspot!  And they no longer accept new customers.   Which, is to my benefit because I get the towers all to myself, heh.

So I'm in this weird limbo now with my cell, and Internet, wondering what Sprint is going to do.  In an ideal world, they would just leave me alone, now that I have what I want and it's all working.  Well, okay, they could implement Wimax II and give me wireless 100Mbps speed like South Korea already has.  But it never plays out that way, right?

Sarah Thomas 3/20/2014 | 11:40:28 AM
Re: And he's still smiling... What makes you think Sprint is less bureacratic than the big two? That's my impression as well, as evidenced by its Accelerator program, approach to startups, and Son's leadership style, but I'm curious to hear why you think so. Is it because Dan Hesse is just so laid back and cool (IMO...)?
R Clark 3/20/2014 | 11:35:51 AM
Re: And he's still smiling... If you had to choose to be CTO at a US operator, Sprint would be a good choice. Plenty of compelling problems to solve without the complexity and bureaucracy of the big two. Legere might be a more entertaining boss, though.


Sarah Thomas 3/20/2014 | 10:25:49 AM
Re: And he's still smiling... I hope he's not offended by how I pegged his accent, but I heard a lot of influences in it! End result is that he not only has interesting things to say, but he's enjoyable to listen to. I'm really looking forward to his Keynote at The Big Telecom Event.
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