Verizon’s Joe Russo explains why being first with 5G SA wasn’t a priority

LAS VEGAS – Joe Russo was named EVP and president of Verizon’s Global Networks and Technology group in March, taking over from Kyle Malady, who was promoted to CEO of Verizon Business. It’s a position that has been held by the likes of Dick Lynch, Tony Melone and even current Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg.

It was Vestberg’s vision to bring the wireline and wireless divisions together, which Verizon now calls the Intelligent Edge Network and what Russo describes as a competitive advantage. By bringing the networks together, Verizon now has a core that serves both wired and wireless customers and it’s doing so in a way that ensures those customers get the capacity and reliability they need.

Joe Russo Verizon
Joe Russo  (Verizon)

Russo, who comes from the wireline side, is quick to point out that the fiber network underpins it all. On top of that, Verizon built its own private cloud platform, similar to AT&T, however AT&T shifted some of its 5G mobile core to Microsoft Azure. Verizon has been firm about its desire to be in control at all times.  

The reasoning went something like this: “If we’re going to have our 5G core applications running in a cloud native environment, we better understand how those are going to work so that we could build in the capacity and the resiliency in those applications with the underlying transport to make sure it’s going to work to our standards,” Russo told Fierce.  

Open RAN & Standalone 5G

Generally, Verizon is in the testing phase of open Radio Access Network (RAN) as opposed to actually deploying it.

“We like the idea of it. I think there’s promise, but at this point, it isn’t part of our scaled rollout for 5G,” he said. It’s possible that open RAN may turn into a next-generation 5G deployment versus 6G, but that’s to be determined, he said.

Verizon has talked about moving customers to 5G Standalone (SA), but it doesn't yet have a nationwide 5G SA network. Bottom line: There’s no hurry to get to nationwide 5G SA, especially given Verizon’s vast and existing 4G LTE network.

“For me, I want to make sure that if we’re deploying a standalone core, it’s really going to benefit customers and it’s not going to be a step back in any way,” he said.

Part of that is having enough compatible devices, mainly smartphones, in customers' hands that can take advantage of 5G SA. Another piece of the puzzle is making sure that whenever there are interactions between the 4G LTE and 5G networks, customers get the same voice quality, handoffs and availability that add up to five 9s reliability.  

“To me, being first on that [SA] wasn’t a priority. It was doing it the right way,” and making sure customers get the same level of reliability and performance that they expect, he said.

“We’re making very good progress,” he added. “We’re where I want to be and I think when the need arises, we’ll be ready to deploy Standalone.”

Network superiority claims

Verizon for decades has relied on its network performance to attract customers and charge a premium. T-Mobile upended things when it acquired Sprint and suddenly jumped ahead of everyone in 5G coverage – and started claiming not only the best pricing but also the best network.

Third-party network tests and a lot of analysts are saying T-Mobile's network is tops in the 5G era, with firms like TD Cowen conducting quarterly surveys of consumer network perceptions to see if T-Mobile has caught up to Verizon. 

This past summer, Cowen asked respondents to rank the Big 3 carriers on best 5G network, T-Mobile closed the gap between itself and Verizon but still fell short of beating Verizon. (For the record, the Cowen analysts reiterated their view that T-Mobile is the best positioned to win among the Big 3 with the No. 1 5G network on coverage and lower priced plans.)

Fierce asked Russo about T-Mobile’s claims about having the best 5G network.

“It’s easy to say you have the best network. It’s really hard to have the best network,” he said.

Verizon routinely points to third-party findings, including Root Metrics and JD Powers, as proof it’s the better choice. “Other people say they have the best network, but we don’t see it in the results,” he said.

Testing the network 

As if to underscore that sentiment, Verizon has about 10 people and a couple executives dedicated to testing the performance of the network at MWC Las Vegas this week. It’s part of a new campaign featuring Test Force, a nationwide team of wireless engineers and technicians said to be “maniacal” about their desire to provide the best possible experience for customers.

On any given day, Verizon employs thousands of people who are testing the network across the country, but Russo said he expects everyone who works at Verizon is testing the network on a daily basis and providing feedback. That includes in Las Vegas, which is preparing to host the Formula 1 race in November and the Super Bowl in 2024.

“Our goal is to be perfect everywhere,” he said. “We know we’re not, but that’s the goal,” and when they find a spot that requires an upgrade, they’ll invest capital to improve it. “We keep chipping away at that each and every day. It’s something we do differently and it’s part of the reason we wanted to highlight to our customers this idea of Test Force. It’s another reason why I think you need to be on Verizon versus other carriers.”

Too often, customers seem to think that the wireless networks today are far more “the same” than they were a decade ago, he said. “They may be more the same when it’s a sunny day,” but when it’s not sunny and disasters strike, it’s important to have the generators, satellite, microwave back-up and more to keep customers connected. “I think all of those things differentiate the Verizon experience.”

Job satisfaction 

Now that he’s more than six months into his new job, how does he like it?

Twenty-eight years ago, he was an intern in the network operations division of the company and hasn’t looked back.

“I love the job,” including the culture and passion of the team, he said. “I’ve been here 28 years by choice. I certainly could have left many times over, but where else do we get to connect people and invest billions of dollars in doing so and roll out all sorts of new technology? I just love all parts of it.”