Monday, February 27, 2012

Change is the Theme in a Roiling Cellular Industry

Now comes the hard part. Or, at least, the unwieldy, contentious, cumbersome and frustrating part.

In November, Verizon Wireless said that it will open its network to devices other than those it directly subsidizes. The story is well told at BusinessWeek: The company is facing a dwindling number of potential new subscribers and is being pushed by companies itching to create alternate paths to deliver their content to subscribers. This led it - and other carriers - to adopt the more open model that is popular in Europe and Asia.

The pronouncement became only somewhat less vague this week as Verizon Wireless held a meeting in New York City to outline its plans to vendors. The piece says another meeting will be held with developers and details are scarce with, for instance, no details on pricing or developer specs.

A recent post at the Industry Standard, which reports on the same conclave, reports that Verizon Wireless sounded defensive about the specs and the certification process. The writer goes through the recent history which, if nothing else, is entertaining: The unveiling of the iPhone last year was followed by rumors of a "Google phone," which turned out to be the more ambitious Android platform. This, in turn, was followed by open network announcements by Verizon Wireless and other carriers and a run of price reductions. The auction got under way in January. Throw in the LiMo open source platform - which the writer doesn't mention - and you have ample reason to follow his caution to be careful as the industry evolves rapidly and companies perhaps over promise.

This wider landscape clearly is encouraging new entrants. It's not a shock, for instance, to see Dell getting ready to take the smartphone plunge. It has been in the mobile game before - with the Axim PDA - and makes "cellularized" laptops. The company also needs to keep pace with rivals such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba, according to Network World. The piece reports on a Digitimes story that says Dell is working on a Windows Mobile device. Surprise or not, it is an indication of the creativity and marketing prowess that will join an already sophisticated sector. Clearly, the cellular industry is the big leagues.

The change in Verizon's access policies, as BusinessWeek points out, is deeply linked to the 700 MHz auction. That auction is over, though the winners have not yet been revealed. reports that the various blocks of spectrum will be treated differently. The fate of the D block - which includes spectrum to be set aside for nationwide emergency services - is up in the air (no pun intended) because it didn't garner enough interest. Bidding was more robust for the other blocks (C, A, B and E) and the reserve prices were met. AT&T was mentioned as a particularly active participant.

This Capitol Valley post does a couple of things. It gives a good explanation of open access in plain English. More importantly - the concept of open access isn't terribly complex, so the explanation is nice but not vital - is the point that open access won't be too big a deal in the U.S. because carrier largesse in terms of phone subsidies is large enough to make all but the most ardent simply take the phone and the much lower monthly charge. That certainly is the case today. We must see, however, whether market forces and competition close the differential enough to make open access a bigger issue down the road.

It's a great time to be in - or reporting on - the cellular industry. The sector is evolving rapidly on several overlapping fronts. As is common in highly competitive industries, the winners will be the end users.

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