Long known for its use of microwave backhaul, Sprint increasingly leverages fiber to support its 5G vision -- a vital step in the move to disrupt rural services, reclaim a foothold in the enterprise and help vertical markets reinvent themselves, according to CTO John Saw.
Fiber backhaul not only supports today's LTE and tomorrow's 5G, but will empower Sprint's transition to towers that simultaneously operate both wireless generations. Fiber optics are also vital to network slicing, a component critical to 5G's ability to revolutionize industry applications and telcos' ability to create new and monetize services while reducing costs and enhancing quality.
That strategy continues to grow, even as Sprint and T-Mobile await a decision about their proposed $26.5 billion merger. The Federal Communications Commission placed an Aug. 27 deadline on filing formal comments. Opposition to petitions are then due on Sept. 17 and replies must be filed by Oct. 19. Even though the FCC created a 180-day review timeline, that does not mean a decision will be forthcoming at that point: The Commission could take longer to make and share its opinion.
Business, however, goes on. And that business includes preparing Sprint -- whether standalone or part of the new T-Mobile -- to serve up 5G to residential and its newly re-invigorated focus on enterprise customers, Saw told Broadband World News. Simultaneously, the company must continue to compete in today's market.
Microwaves and fiber
Sprint is often called the largest owner of high-band spectrum and a backhaul network using microwave in the United States. It has rich 2.5 GHz holdings plus large shares of 800 MHz and 1900 MHz spectrum. Sprint uses fiber, small cells on 2.5 GHz or microwave for backhaul, depending on the situation and location, Saw said.
Heading the Network Charge
Sprint CTO John Saw, who has six US patents in wireless tech, oversees technology development, network planning, engineering, deployment and service assurance.
With plans to support both LTE and 5G on future towers, fiber becomes a necessity, he added.
"We are significantly increasing our payload, so that's where fiber comes in. We get dark fiber and light up our own fiber, working with providers like Zayo," said Saw. "We have also got a lot of sites with lit fiber where we pay a monthly fee, an operational cost, to lease a certain data rate for this fiber. The dark fiber over the long term will certainly be cheaper but it's more expensive upfront because of capital costs."
Today, 90% of Sprint's backhaul is Ethernet-based, he said. Of that, microwave represents 10% to 15% of Ethernet backhaul, with fiber adding up to the remaining 85% to 90%, Saw noted.
From farmers to financiers
Most recently, Sprint's focused on residential and SMB customers but has a renewed focus on enterprise -- which has growth in phone additions for three consecutive quarters and decreased churn, said Marcelo Claure, Sprint executive chairman, during the provider's fourth-quarter 2017 earnings results call in May 2018.
"The opportunity is there. 5G is a catalyst," Saw told BBWN. "We always viewed enterprise as a big opportunity for Sprint. Don't forget, the Sprint network has improved quite a lot even just over the last three years. With a more capable network, with more capacity, with strong leadership, we certainly feel very confident we can compete with the likes of AT&T and Verizon; now we have a very good 5G story using our 2.5 megahertz, I think that's going to give us that confidence we can compete very successfully in the enterprise space."
The service provider expects equal success far from skyscrapers, corner-office skirmishes and mass transit. Rural regions, representing about 62 million people or 48% of the population, have one or no broadband provider, typically because households are widely dispersed and wireline solutions are prohibitively expensive to deploy, Saw said. A merged Sprint/T-Mobile 5G network would cover 85% of rural households with fixed wireless, said Saw, underscoring a point both providers' CEOs have made in Washington, D.C.
Fixed wireless will deliver speeds of 25 Mbit/s download and 3 Mbit/s upload, in line with the FCC's wireline definition of broadband rather than the slower (10 Mbit/s up, 1 Mbit/s down) the agency prescribed for wireless carriers, he noted.
"Realistically it would take us some time to build out neighborhoods, but it's not going to take a very long time. If you look at our public interest statement we were going to complete the integration of the networks by 2021. I think by 2024 we should be able to cover these rural homes," Saw said. "It's only in a few years: It's going to be progressive and we should be in the peak of the build between 2021 and 2024."
Connecting rural and other un- and under-served markets becomes even more critical with the advent of 5G and its potential to enable true industry transformations, he said. LTE powered Uber and AirBnB, among other disrupters, Saw said. The arrival of 5G, Internet of Things and yet-to-arrive technologies all will reshape numerous markets such as agriculture and healthcare, he said.
"One of the things of the promise of 5G is it's going to be one of the many Gs in wireless where we take the 'G' out of wireless and put it into vertical industries. What I mean by that is that 5G is probably going to be the first G where we have the opportunity to disrupt many vertical markets," said Saw. "For instance, you talk about agriculture. We can use 5G for a lot of things we can improve in terms of crop monitoring, things like weather monitoring, proactive fertilization and irrigation in rural areas, the whole area of massive IoT for farming equipment -- all this is just beginning.
"In healthcare, you'll able to reach underserved areas with faster medical response and medical attention. If you live in remote areas, you don't have to drive to a big city for a major consultation with a doctor. You can do it remotely," he added. "Doctors will be able to do crazy things like remote surgery some day. So I think the whole area of Internet of Things is not just to disrupt city folks, but it also can be used to change the lives of rural folks and underserved areas."
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.