Shon Sparks – DISH Wireless
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Ian Miller
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
As another Colorado winter inched toward spring, Shon Sparks was counting the days until his favorite annual convention, Connect (X). He’d find himself in good company with other forward-thinking technology innovators and likely rope in more partners for his employer’s ambitious agenda.
Director of national real estate at DISH Wireless, Sparks is among those spearheading the TV and direct broadcast satellite provider’s intention to disrupt the wireless industry and essentially change how the world communicates. They’ve made much progress since Sparks joined the team in 2020 as the market general manager in Houston, meeting last year’s goal of covering 20 percent of the national population with 5G broadband connectivity. They’re now on target to increase it to 70 percent by this June and 75 percent come 2025.
This being too much for any one company to do, Sparks has been networking on a personal level, for which the Crescent City convention should provide many opportunities. The sky’s indeed the limit for what the fifth generation of networks can bring. Just look, he says, at what the fourth generation has wrought.
“As the industry launched 4G, it didn’t know everything it would bring to society and we still don’t know,” Sparks tells Blueprint in February from DISH Wireless headquarters in Littleton, Colorado. “Uber and a host of new apps are now part of our daily lives. Prior to 4G, the infrastructure wasn’t available. As we move into 5G, there’ll be a larger canvas for developers to work with.”
Thinking and acting big
Sparks’ role is a comprehensive one as he and his department secure the geography and physical structures for which that canvas can expand. Under his wing are teams to execute lease agreements, ensure regulatory compliance and manage the utilities that power the networks. His advice to everyone: Think big.
“I like to tell people that we’re not just building a new national network from the ground up,” he says. “We’re building an organization and have to define every process and policy the ‘DISH Way.’”
The more assets, the better—DISH Wireless has sealed deals with traditional infrastructure companies such as Crown Castle and American Tower Global Wireless Solutions, as well as with building owners with rooftops to lease. With tower construction often facing public and environmental opposition, he says commercial rooftops represent the next generation of cell towers, with DISH needing thousands from coast to coast.
DISH should get them with much assistance from asset management firm 5G LLC, which facilitates cellular rooftop installations.
“They’ve been able to grease the skids for us to get agreements in place and market those assets to us,” Sparks says of 5G LLC. “They’re a great partner and we could use more like them.”
Robust 3D data drones also support the cause, DISH having such unmanned aircraft soaring over every site and enabling Sparks to leverage data to automate installation. With so much seemingly under control, he says the June goal of 70 percent of the U.S. population broadband-served is well within reach, the facilities either under construction or ready to be integrated with networks.
And Sparks, his tech-and-construction background complemented by Air Force discipline, seems just the person to oversee a project of this magnitude. But, as he explains, his task is somewhat streamlined by DISH being a relative newcomer in an industry once dominated by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
A higher standard
While DISH had been a TV satellite provider, it experienced a watershed year in 2019, disrupting the wireless communications industry by acquiring Sprint’s prepaid businesses, including Boost Mobile. DISH now a wireless carrier, the federal government allowed T-Mobile and Sprint to merge, satisfied that with Verizon also in the industry, there would be sufficient competition and Sparks saying, in effect, bring it on.
“Our advantage is our configurations are standardized,” he says. “The other carriers are essentially the result of acquisitions while the DISH [5G network] is a true national greenfield deployment. Visit our cell sites in Seattle or Miami and you’ll see they’re identical.”
Being a newcomer also may help on the personnel front. While other carriers have had a 20-year head start, Sparks says DISH Wireless is better positioned to recruit young tech talent.
“We’ve attracted industry horsepower that’s interested in disrupting an industry in new and innovative ways,” he says. “Being the fourth carrier on the ground floor enabled us to attract a lot of creative people.”
That includes Sparks, who’s brought to DISH Wireless skills in many disciplines: design engineering, real estate, construction management, contract negotiating, general business and more.
“There aren’t a lot of us who know the business end to end,” he says in a non-boastful manner. “I pride myself in how I’ve padded my skillset.”
His career seems one of foresight and personal growth. As an Air Force enlistee in 1996, Sparks sought a specific task—electronics—rather than being assigned a discipline. Expertise in ground communication could be applied, he reasoned, to what was then a nascent mobile phone industry.
The Air Force allowing Sparks to be all he could be in all things wired and wireless, he parlayed his electronics expertise into a bench technician’s role with Nokia after his honorable discharge in 2001. Six months later, he began a stretch of nearly 17 years with T-Mobile, ascending to senior manager of engineering development in Houston after much time in the Gulf Coast and Central Florida as a design engineer.
And while he seemed to have all technological bases covered, Sparks sensed his marketability would be enhanced with the higher education he had delayed. Though his T-Mobile roles were demanding, he managed his time well enough to earn business degrees from Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, and an MBA from the University of Michigan.
Still needing to round out his skillset, he left T-Mobile in 2018 for a two-year stint at Stonecrop Technologies where he immersed in telecom logistics. That put him on the DISH Wireless radar screen when it had some fast catching-up to do on the wireless front. The company invited Sparks to join its Houston office to help assemble a Texas network. That task was completed in 2021, and he was promoted to the national real estate team in Colorado.
The Rocky Mountain lifestyle suits him, his wife and his 7- and 11-year-old daughters, with the family enjoying skiing, cycling and other outdoor recreation. Only there hasn’t been much time for Sparks to be on the slopes, just as there won’t be much time for him to enjoy Bourbon Street during Connect (X).
While much has been accomplished on his watch, there’s much more to do and deadlines to beat. But Sparks isn’t hurting for motivation. He’s just where he wants to be.
“I jokingly say I’m one of the few in wireless who actually targeted this industry,” he says. “Everyone else in telecom seemed to fall into it.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.
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