Sramana: How long did your journey in cellular continue?
J.R. Smith: My U.S. experience in cellular lasted until 1997. Shortly before VoiceStream was acquired by T-Mobile, I left to go on a temporary assignment with Motorola in Prague. They were deploying a network for Radio Mobile and I knew a lot about network deployment, cite licensing, and positioning. Motorola felt that the process and knowledge I had would be applicable, even though I did not know the language. They were willing to get translators.
I went over on a six-month contract with Motorolla, fully intending to return to VoiceStream once that had concluded. The CEO of VoiceStream told me to go. He thought it would be a great experience to see a new part of the world and that since I was young and energetic that it would be a great experience. It was a great safety net to know that I would have a job when I got back. At the end of the day, I went and realized that there was a lot of opportunity in Europe. The regulatory bodies were auctioning off at least two new regulatory licenses in every country in Europe. I took those skills that I had at deploying networks and formed a company called Telecom Solutions Group. We deployed those networks. That turned into deploying 27 networks across 14 countries over a seven-year span. We partnered with mobile operators like Orange and Vodafone. We also partnered with equipment suppliers like Nokia, Eriksson, and Siemens. There were so many licenses being issued, and the operators who were buying them did not have people on the ground to deploy the networks, so they would award equipment contracts with conditions that mandated that the network build be included. Companies like Nokia did not know how to build networks, which is why I could come in and tell them I knew how to do RF planning, site acquisition, permitting, construction work, and integration. I worked closely with Nokia in the early days, and we built a company of more than 200 people.
Sramana: That is hard work.
J.R. Smith: It was. I remember dropping into countries like Switzerland and Austria with Nokia when we had three days to answer an RFQ and win a contract. We would drop in with a construction expert, an acquisition expert, and an equipment expert, and we would respond to volumes of questions. We had site plans and schematics, and oftentimes we won the contract. I stayed up without sleeping for three days straight once before I literally fell asleep on my laptop while responding to answers.
Sramana: How long did that company go?
J.R. Smith: That company is still alive today. I am still a 15% owner in that company. I have very little to do with that company now. I probably handle a one-hour phone call once a quarter. The company is now called Sun Cell. They have a patent and unique technology for solar-powered cell sites. They save network operators tons of money. They go out and build the network and then lease it back to the operators. It is a great business.