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.
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.)
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