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Former Sprint exec lands at Mississippi wireless operator

Once Sprint's technology chief, Stephen Bye will soon head up strategy for rural operator C Spire, as the company decides whether to participate in the government's upcoming spectrum auction.

Former Sprint CTO Stephen Bye will join regional wireless operator C Spire in November. Sprint

A small regional wireless operator in Mississippi is beefing up its technology chops by hiring an executive who had a leading role in Sprint's network overhaul.

On Wednesday, Ridgeland, Mississippi-based C Spire announced that former Sprint chief technology officer Stephen Bye would lead its technology strategy starting November 1. Bye had risen quickly through the ranks at Sprint after arriving there in 2011 from cable operator Cox Communications. He resigned as CTO of Sprint in July.

While at Sprint he was part of a team behind an ambitious plan to rip out old 3G wireless infrastructure and replace it with technology that laid the foundation for Sprint's 4G LTE service. The construction phase of the project was marred by delays and service outages that hurt Sprint's reputation with customers. More recently, Sprint's network upgrades have resulted in improved voice call and text message quality. The company has also posted strong testing results for its 4G LTE network, winning accolades in certain cities from independent testing firm Root Metrics. But throughout much of its network, Sprint still lags behind the other carriers in data speeds.

Bye's experience deploying a next-generation wireless network will be critical to C Spire. He comes on board as every wireless company in the US evaluates whether to participate in the Federal Communication Commission's upcoming wireless spectrum auction. This auction is expected to be one of the last times the government sells low-frequency radio licenses, the keys to the airwaves that help carriers provide lower-cost service to suburban and rural markets while improving in-building coverage.

AT&T and Verizon, the largest wireless companies in the country, already control more than 70 percent of this type of wireless spectrum. The FCC's auction is expected to give smaller carriers, like C Spire, access to larger quantities of this valuable asset. In spite of a special reserve the FCC has set aside for smaller carriers to bid on, the auction is expected to be an expensive one. Smaller carriers are weighing whether to spend the billions of dollars needed for additional spectrum.

C Spire CEO Hu Meena said in a statement Wednesday that he has known Bye for years and expects him to make "our management team even stronger."

Sprint announced over the weekend that it would not participate in the auction and instead will use existing spectrum it owns to build its 4G LTE network. C Spire and other smaller operators don't have as much spectrum as Sprint, but they could reuse spectrum allocated for older technologies as they build and expand 4G services instead of buying more spectrum.

With a million subscribers, C Spire is the sixth largest wireless operator in the US. In 2008, it was one of many regional operators to participate in the government's last major auction of low-frequency spectrum. It has long been viewed as a progressive wireless carrier and was among the first carriers of its size to deploy 4G LTE, which allows wireless users to surf the Internet on their mobile devices at broadband-like speeds.

C Spire, which operates primarily in Mississippi, as well as in parts of Tennessee, Florida and Alabama, has invested more than $1 billion since 2003 in improving its network infrastructure, including building a fiber network to support its 4G LTE coverage. Last year, it joined the ranks of Google and AT&T by using that fiber infrastructure to launch a broadband network that can deliver 1Gbps uploads and downloads. The service is now operating in four cities in Mississippi.

Bye will also be in charge of C Spire's broadband strategy.