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Sprint CTO discusses cloud opportunities, AT&T and unlimited plans

The power of 4G networks and more advanced mobile devices are presenting opportunities in the cloud, but are also changing the way these networks are built.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

Sprint is one of the last few major carriers that still offers consumers unlimited voice and data plans, which company execs tout not only as a differentiator but one of the better ways to addressing the needs and experiences of customers.

Unlimited plans are about simplicity and value, said Stephen Bye, Sprint's chief technology officer, while speaking at GigaOM's Mobilize 2011 summit in San Francisco on Monday afternoon, adding that it's not easy to talk about tiered plans and costs to customers.

Bye also offered the caveat that if a mobile provider does not have unlimited plans, they'll have to deal with a larger support structure as they're most definitely going to receive more calls, comments and complaints from customers.

However, Bye admitted that Sprint is "open to different business models" in other ways with different pricing models and devices divided up by demographics and brands (i.e. Virgin Mobile and Boost), but also other products such as the Google experience on the Nexus S 4G and Cricket's Muse music service.

But with unlimited data plans and just the growth of data activity on mobile devices in general, that begs concern for the evolution of these networks.

"Network modernization enables us to look at a future where data dominates how we build networks," Bye said, explaining that in the past, it was driven by voice plans. When you look at the world of data by user, location, or the time of day, Bye continued, the way you build that network is very different and challenging.

If you look at what Sprint is building today, including the rebuilding of its 3G network, it's a data-focused design.

"It brings us back up to a new generation of technology on the network," Bye asserted, adding that it allows Sprint to position itself as a partner for spectrum hosting and networking sharing. He acknowledged that this is unusual in the United States but common in other countries.

Here enters cloud computing and the opportunity it presents for mobile technlogies. Bye posited that there are a handful of forces at work right now that enable a relationship between the cloud and mobile. It starts with the devices and how they're becoming incredibly more capable when it comes to processing power, storage capabilities and more.

The power of 4G and low-latency is also a contributor as the challenge, historically-speaking, has primarily been the network. Then there's security, which is a major challenge that the cloud can partially address when other factors are considered.

But rather than serving as a host, Sprint sees its part in this cloud-based world as an "enabler." Bye said that if a business has needs for cloud services, Sprint will enable it. The mobile provider is not in the business of selling software, he added, but explained that Sprint can provide care and support to customers and utilize its partnerships with device vendors.

Of course, at one point the discussion turned towards the proposed AT&T and T-Mobile merger.

"I can't speculate too much, but for us, we look at our cost structure and how do we compete against people that have a greater scale than we have," Bye said. He added that it's arguable whether or not consolidation is needed to get that scale (which is what AT&T is arguing for), but don't take that as a sign of understanding or favor for the merger.

Bye affirmed that Sprint has "a lot of respect for T-Mobile," and that when you listen to AT&T's arguments, "they just don't gel."

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