by Robert Herron
Sprint 4G Rollout Updates
Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 10:33 AM MST
Today we feature text from internal correspondence that was distributed to Sprint employees regarding the state of the Network Vision deployment and addresses key points that employees often encounter with the public. It is from a Q&A session with Chad Elliott, Sprint's Director of Strategic Technology Programs.
Although there aren't really points in the memo that will be surprises for S4GRU Members who follow deployment closely, it is helpful to get some sort of official documentation from Sprint that we can now point to explain what is going on. It is a good and concise reference of many key challenges that have impacted Network Vision, with some vague outlook for 2013.
Some things discussed in the memo include that production is ramping up and with more launches more frequently, why smaller towns/cities seem to be being upgraded first, issues going on that are slowing down deployment in some areas, etc. Take a look at the memo below:
With 2012 now in the rear view mirror, we think it is important to understand how Network Vision deployment is going and the excitement that's ahead in 2013. We caught up with Chad Elliott, director-Strategic Technology Programs, whose team works across business units to launch Network Vision. Here is what Chad had to say about the deployment thus far and what we have to look forward to in 2013.
Explain your role in Network Vision?
As it relates to Network Vision, our team is basically the liaison between the network functions and the rest of the business. Bob Azzi’s team is doing the heavy lifting related to development and execution, and our team then partners with other areas of the company to get things launched and make sure Sprint is ready to support and care for all of the Network Vision initiatives that we are rolling out. That includes LTE systems, Sprint Direct Connect and the actual market launches.
Last year was about getting builds under way for Network Vision, how do you think 2013 looks?
I'm really excited about 2013. We continue to see great progress. Each quarter has gotten better and while it is never easy, repeating the same activities allows you to gain some momentum. As we were finishing up 2012, we were having some of the best weeks we have seen so far, and we expect to continue that pace in January. If you look back, we've been launching five to 10 LTE markets each month since July 2012, and what gets me excited is looking at the rest of 2013 - we expect to be able to launch a lot more markets per month and really see the trend ramp up as we go through the year.
So far, we have launched 49 markets with LTE and announced nearly 150 markets where LTE is coming soon. We have well over 200 markets where we already have one or more sites on air for 3G enhancements and/or LTE. So we have a lot of work going on that will allow us to ramp up our progress in 2013.
It feels to some of us, especially as we are talking to friends, family and other customers, that the rollout of 3G enhancements and 4G LTE has been somewhat slow. From your perspective, what do you think about this? What are some of the issues that may hold up deployment in some areas?
Bottom line is that the rollout of Network Vision is not easy; it is a very complex rollout. We have tens of thousands of towers that we need to modify and each one has its own unique characteristics. Whether it is the landlord, the zoning that is required, a particular municipality and their rules, or working with the different backhaul providers, there are many different complexities that may impact the deployment process at an individual site. Kay Usry’s and John Harrison’s teams actually have a war room to understand these issues with the goal being to not let the same issue hold you up in multiple locations. So, they try to group issues and address them as we move forward.
One example at a site is that the local municipality would not allow the crew to finish repainting a water tower because it was too humid. In cases like this, Sprint doesn’t have control over that, so the crew just had to wait until they got the go ahead to continue. That particular crew was able to go work on another site, but they still had to stop at some point and go back to repaint the water tower. There have also been situations where there was miscommunication within the landlord’s company and the person on site wouldn’t give us access or they forgot to clear the parking lot to make room for a crane we arranged to be at the site.
Moreover, Network Vision isn’t just about cell sites. We're also upgrading every switch and turning up fiber ethernet across the country. Some of our competitors upgraded their switches and their backhaul to Ethernet fiber before they began cell site upgrades. They didn’t do everything all at once like we are.
So as you can tell, the complexities that can arise in a comprehensive national network rollout like Network Vision tend to be a little bit of everything – crews, equipment, uniqueness of the location, finicky landlords, weather and yes, even the birds you have heard us talk about before. Getting more crews in more places can obviously help which is what John Harrison’s team is doing. The war room I mentioned is also helpful because they work to prevent the same issue from bubbling up and impacting a lot of sites.
I feel good about the pipeline of sites that are under construction or where work can begin. The high level lifecycle is leasing, zoning and permits, and notice to proceed (NTP). Once we have an NTP, that site is ready for us to start work on. We have built a good pipeline so that if we run into an issue at one site, that crew can move to another site in that market.
Can you explain why we are often able to launch LTE in smaller cities before we're able to announce larger markets?
Sure. First, let me explain why we came up with our Network Vision market structure because internally most people are probably used to Sprint’s 99 geographic areas that we use to group customers or network locations. This 99 market structure works well internally but it doesn’t translate very well when we are trying to communicate to customers. A good example is when we say the Kansas market - internally everyone knows this is a unique geographic area that covers only a fraction of the state of Kansas and also includes a significant portion of Missouri. But externally, if we said we are launching Kansas, most people probably think it is the actual state as you see it on a map. So we had to come up with a way to talk about where our network is externally. At the same time, our competitors were starting to use market counts in their advertising. If we stuck with only our 99 markets, we’d be at an unnecessary disadvantage.
Ultimately, we came up with using a Census Bureau methodology of micropolitan statistical areas and metropolitan statistical areas to define markets in a way that customers can understand. Most people are familiar with the term metropolitan and for micropolitan area, the best definition I have seen was when it was the Time magazine word of the week, and they defined it as a small but regionally important population center. This approach aligns with what our competitors are doing and will allow us to announce hundreds of markets versus just the 99.
Now back to your question about market launches. We launch a market when we have a reasonable coverage footprint that will allow many users to experience LTE in the market. And while we started building in the large markets like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago early in the process, it takes more sites in those cities before we can launch than in a smaller micropolitan area. For instance, having 50 sites up in New York City is not the same from a footprint standpoint as having 50 sites up in Wichita, Kan. Thus we are able to launch some smaller markets much sooner. But we are building all over the country, so the good news for customers in larger metropolitan areas is, if they have an LTE-capable device and are within coverage of a site we have completed, that they can often experience LTE even before we officially launch in their market.
Using your example above, if we were to stop work in Wichita could we launch New York City sooner?
As I mentioned, we started building with the larger markets, so it is not that we started them late and are trying to catch up. It just takes more sites to have the footprint to launch the larger markets. So what you’re essentially asking is if we have access to crews in Wichita that would be willing to travel to New York City. Probably not. Across all the markets, we work with different vendors and different crews and subcontractors, so it’s not as easy as just moving a crew to another location. In addition, not every person is licensed or has the expertise to work on every single type of site.
In general, are we pleased with the performance we are seeing at Network Vision sites both on the 3G and 4G side?
Overall the calls to Care related to our LTE launches have been minimal. To me that is a good indication that when they have the device and get LTE coverage, the customers are having a positive experience. Considering LTE is brand new, it has gone smoother than expected.
With LTE, you can turn up a site by someone’s house and they can take advantage of that right away. On the 3G enhancements, it takes a larger group of sites being turned up before you really see the full advantages of the optimization, so it can take a little bit longer to experience the benefits. Take the Chicago area for example; if you go back and look at the initial areas where we started 3G enhancements, the network operation metrics have really improved in that area. In Nov. 2012, the block rate for voice calls in Chicago was at the lowest rate in the past three years. So even while the 3G enhancements in the market aren’t complete yet, we are seeing the benefits of the program; it just took a little longer to get there.
What is the biggest challenge for you in your role?
Probably the biggest thing is being patient. I sometimes have a hard time with that and always want to go faster and get more done. But, I recognize Network Vision is challenging and complex and thus takes time and patience.
What is the most gratifying thing for you in your role?
Probably the teamwork. We have a broad core team including sales, marketing, corporate communications and customer care. Everyone is really motivated to make Network Vision a success, and if we have issues pop up, everybody is willing to jump in and do what they can to help. It has made it really easy and rewarding to work with everyone because it is such a motivated team.