Profile: Sanyogita Shamsunder, the “Problem Solver” Behind Verizon’s 5G Network

She manages a team of 15 engineers responsible for plotting Verizon’s next big move

4 min read
Sanyogita Shamsunder, Verizon's director of network planning, is shown standing outside near equipment used to test new base station technology.

Ask anyone in telecom and they’ll tell you that Verizon has been the most aggressive of any U.S. company in forging ahead on 5G, the highly anticipated wireless network of the future. Last year, Verizon established a technical forum dedicated to hurrying along its development, and became the first U.S. company to promise a commercial deployment in 2017.

Critics have warned Verizon about upsetting the apple cart of international standards-making for 5G, a formal process that isn’t scheduled to conclude until 2020. But Verizon has insisted that its 5G network will be ready to deliver fixed wireless service (that which is delivered between two stationary points, such as a base station and a rooftop antenna) to customers this year.

The future of that network is largely in the hands of Sanyogita Shamsunder, Verizon’s director of network planning. She leads the team of 15 engineers who are crunching data from early trials, weighing potential business models, and generally laying the groundwork for the company’s ambitious 5G plans.

Shamsunder, who works at Verizon’s operations headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., began her engineering career in the mid-1990s, just as the wireless industry was starting to take off. A decade later, she successfully led Verizon’s rollout of LTE, for which she drafted the technical specifications that smartphone manufacturers used to make sure their devices functioned on Verizon’s network.

That experience made her the obvious choice when the company needed someone to steer its massive network to the promised land of 5G. Today, her job consists of managing Verizon’s team of 5G network planners, which largely consists of engineers and technologists—a leadership role for which her own technical background hadn’t specifically prepared her. As a fellow engineer, she focuses on assigning her team to high-level problems and helping them find solutions.

In her managerial role, Shamsunder often finds she has to nudge her group to make decisions and remind them to take more risks. “They like to lay out all the cases and say, ‘You decide,’ ” she says. “I think when you’re working at that level, you need to be able to make decisions. I think many engineers have a difficult time doing that.”

Shamsunder hasn’t always envisioned herself in an executive role. She grew up in the city of Hyderabad, India, and earned her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and telecom from nearby Osmania University. With it, she became the lone engineer in a family of doctors. That meant “no one could help me with my math,” she jokes.

She thought about taking a job in the industry right away, but instead landed at the University of Virginia, where she completed her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and wrote a thesis on signal processing. “I loved the mathematics behind communications and signal processing in general,” she says.

After spending a few years teaching courses on signal processing as an assistant professor at Colorado State, Shamsunder found her first job in the telecom industry. She became a senior engineer at Stanford Telecommunications, a company that made components for cable modems and TV set-top boxes.

Today, her time at Stanford still stands out as the pivotal experience that persuaded her to abandon the academic world for good. “It was a place where you could apply some of the things you learned in your Ph.D. to cool, practical problems, and that’s what really got me interested,” she says.

After her stint at Stanford, Shamsunder switched to working on base stations for Lucent (a telecom company that has since merged with Alcatel and been acquired by Nokia), and later became a principal engineer at a startup called Sandbridge Technologies. At Sandbridge, she built software-defined radio for mobile phones.

During her five-year tenure at Sandbridge, she found herself increasingly involved in discussions about the customer value proposition of specific products. She gradually became more interested in the broader business, beyond her own projects. “There’s a lot of good technology around today, but then the business model makes it very difficult to be successful,” she says. “I think it’s very important to understand that.”

After a brief stint developing hardware platforms for mobile devices at LinQuest, a semiconductor company, Shamsunder joined Verizon in 2007 as a director in charge of the company’s wireless and technology strategy.

Her first task was to build a team of people from scratch to work with Nokia, Ericsson, Intel, and Samsung on the launch of LTE. Her team’s job was to make sure the devices that manufacturers built would run on Verizon’s network. She led that project for three years, and Verizon’s launch of LTE in 2010 was her proudest professional moment.

Shortly after joining Verizon, Shamsunder also set out to earn her Executive MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She wanted to learn how to position products, manage a team, and conduct consumer research. That meant she woke up at 6 a.m., every other Friday, to drive to Philadelphia for two full days of stacked courses. On Saturday night, she returned home to her husband and two young kids.

One of her most memorable lessons from Wharton came as Shamsunder was sitting in the classroom when the iPhone launched in 2007. At that time, AT&T was the only carrier to support it. “All my classmates were like, Why don’t you have this?” she says.

She’d prefer to avoid such questions with 5G. For the past year and a half, her team has coordinated research, development, and testing of several technologies that could bring faster data speeds and lower latency to both base stations and devices.

So far, high-frequency millimeter waves appear to be the leading candidate, as Verizon plans to use them to deploy fixed wireless 5G service this year. “I think fixed wireless is a great use case for us, and for the industry in general, because you can test all the elements in a more controlled environment where there’s very limited mobility,” she says. “What we’ve seen so far doesn’t give us any pause to stop and question this.”

But there’s two sides to every coin. Along with the thrill of 5G and the privilege of shaping Verizon’s future network also comes a tremendous amount of pressure. But Shamsunder prefers it that way, and always has, from her first days in the budding wireless industry. “I’m a problem solver; I’m an engineer at heart,” she says. “I like challenges, and it’s more fun to go into uncharted territory.”

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We've all been told that 5G wireless is going to deliver amazing capabilities and services. But it won't come cheap. When all is said and done, 5G will cost almost US $1 trillion to deploy over the next half decade. That enormous expense will be borne mostly by network operators, companies like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and dozens more around the world that provide cellular service to their customers. Facing such an immense cost, these operators asked a very reasonable question: How can we make this cheaper and more flexible?

Their answer: Make it possible to mix and match network components from different companies, with the goal of fostering more competition and driving down prices. At the same time, they sparked a schism within the industry over how wireless networks should be built. Their opponents—and sometimes begrudging partners—are the handful of telecom-equipment vendors capable of providing the hardware the network operators have been buying and deploying for years.

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