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Interview: Chris Harper of Sprint

12 October 2010

Chris Harper reaping the rewards of a flat, global network architecture

Read more: Sprint wholesale enterprise IP Global One France Telecom Deutsche Telekom

Chris Harper: It’s a flat network, which makes it easy to build
out. The architecture in the POP in London is the same as in
Sydney and New York 
Chris Harper is celebrating his tenth anniversary with Sprint. He joined Global One, the global services joint venture between Sprint, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom, to head its network services organisation as it started to unravel.
In the aftermath, Harper stayed with Sprint to build, run and manage its network from Europe, assuming responsibility for the rest of Sprint’s non-North American network five years ago.
He’s instituted a structure in the global business that splits it into three units — Europe, Asia and the Americas — under regional leaders who are responsible for the customer experience in their regions. Harper is in charge of those operations and is also responsible for Sprint’s global IT and vendor management outside the US.
He maintains relationships with all the operators Sprint does business with, "whether that means a subsea cable operator in Vietnam or a last mile provider in London".
Having selected an IP-MPLS network for Sprint’s global network, Harper feels his operation is now reaping the benefits: "The IP side of it makes life easier for us and our customers," he says. With no legacy frame relay network outside the US, IP "gives us cost advantages", he notes.
"When it comes to MPLS, we chose to have it just at the edge. We don’t have to worry about what the packets are doing in the core and as soon as packets hit our routers, they move as fast as possible through our network."
Harper says applications such as videoconferencing "really play into it with their sensitivity to jitter".
Flat network architecture
Having standardised technologically across the world also means he has fewer headaches. It’s a rare case of a telecoms executive enjoying the fruits of strategy he put in place. "It’s a flat network which, from our perspective makes it easy to build out," he says. "The architecture in the POP in London is the same as in Sydney and New York."
That architecture matches customers’ needs, regardless of what those might be, adds Harper. Those customers want economies of scale and the ability to run applications as fast as possible but have a varied set of requirements.
"A German wholesale customer that has a significant business relationship with an oil company looks to us to resolve all of their Latin and North American bandwidth requirements," says Harper. "Equally, a wholesale provider in the Asia Pacific region doesn’t have a large footprint in Europe and America so we provide them with bandwidth."
So far, so standard wholesale. Yet, Harper says that’s not the case. Sprint isn’t just using its modern network to undercut competitors, its bringing new models to the wholesale market. "For example, if an Indian customer wants to push voice traffic to India from the US, the price they are quoted from us is the price," he says. "Competitors give them a price per port but with us they get the visibility, that’s the point."
In contrast to some providers that claim to have global networks, Sprint still thinks ownership is important — most likely as a means to continue to derive the benefits in terms of operation and cost that the flat network provides. "We describe it as having global breadth by having wholly owned facilities covering 95% of the places in which global corporations are located," adds Harper. "The sweet spot for us is multinational corporations out of the US and international corporations into the US."
"We use the phrase 'Sprint supernodes’ to describe our main locations, then we have what we refer to as access POPs in 128 countries," says Harper. "The next level is MPLS network to network interfaces such as those we have with China Telecom in China and Orange in Africa."
There’s a construction pattern that Harper likes to follow. "We build our network to cover 95% of locations and then fill in the gaps with access POPs then NNIs in places like Botswana with Orange. As the network matures, access POPs become full service POPs."
Demand grows
Harper gives the example of Sprint’s growth in Canada to describe how the patterns works. "In Canada, we had an NNI with Rogers but now we have a POP in Toronto, are building a new POP in Vancouver and have an access POP in Calgary," he says. "We build the network as demand grows. It’s the reverse of build it and they will come."
Providing a consistent global service feeds into the demands from multinational corporation to engage with fewer suppliers. "We’re starting to see that," agrees Harper. "There are aspirations among MNCs to come down to single suppliers but we’ve also found that legacy contracts can get in the way. An MNC, for example, may have its Australian operations one year into a three year contract with another provider."
That doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation, though. "Sprint can manage that vendor for or on behalf of the MNC," he adds. "We also find that MNCs want a primary and a back up operator. We can be primary and manage a back up operator. Politics do come into it."
That’s part of the dynamic that has seen customer become increasingly demanding of their operator. They want more visibility into their networks from their carriers such as tools to manage their networks themselves. Sprint has a tool called Compass that enables that. "It’s an interesting area," says Harper. "Some customers want us to manage it all and some like the facility to self manage. Compass enables them to see their whole network, it enables them to look at their routers, ping test and look at faults."
Harper sees functions such as that — along with the clearer pricing Sprint can provide — as helping it continue to be competitive as more operators target the market for global, high-value customers.
"We know our network is high performance, congestion-free and able to support all the IP and converged services that are coming so that’s a tick in the network box," he says. "We’re also confident that our customer service is excellent. Our customer service platform or 'white gloved’ [top-end] services are provided at no extra cost, so that’s tick in the customer service box. Finally, we’re on net in 165 countries and have the flexibility to access others so that’s a tick in the coverage box."
In common with other wholesale operators, the network is still the heart of the business. "My whole existence at Sprint is based around consistent global service irrespective of platform and service type," says Harper.
"There aren’t separate business units or companies within Sprint. The organisation’s job is to build the network, receive orders and deliver high quality of service. When we talk about global customer support, I don’t just mean my team, I mean sales teams, pre-sales and technical support teams," he adds.
Regional approaches
"We understand the culture of the companies we serve as well as the network requirements. We’re not just a big American player and have all the skills to be a regional European, Asian or Latin player as well."
Harper says that regional approaches, especially in sales, were broken down seven years ago so sales forces, whether in London, Sydney or New York, are incentivised to win customer business together rather than giving orders to specific personnel in their specific office. "That made a difference overnight," says Harper. "They’re not all pulling for individual resources."
That approach feeds through to match the customer’s requirements. Harper gives what he considers to be a typical example of the new large corporate demand. "The CIO is based in Chicago but the chief architect is in Toulouse and the company is aggressive in mergers and acquisitions so project managers could be anywhere," he says.
"In that scenario, we put a global account leader in Chicago and a service manager in Toulouse and drop in project managers wherever the projects may come up. We’re very flexible about moving people in and out of the account team as necessary." GTB