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Giving away their future


By Scott Bradner


At the same time as much of the traditional telephone world is looking to the mobile Internet as the keystone for their (hopefully profitable) future their marketing enticements are giving away the main thing that might have made it possible for them to have succeeded.


The traditional phone companies have built up impressive debt loads chasing rainbows, or maybe it was just a game of one upsmanship against the Internet service providers.  Where the ISPs drug of choice was fiber optic cable the phone companies lost all reason when enticed by governments dangling radio spectrum just out of their reach.  The phone companies built piles of borrowed money to stand on to try to grab the artificially-limited shiny licenses at government-sponsored auctions.  Artificially-limited, in that much of what the phone companies want to do could be done with unlicensed spread spectrum.  But the governments surely could not add to the availability of unlicensed spectrum because that would lose all the revenue that the phone companies pay for exclusive use of little bits of radio space.  The fact that many of the auction "winners" will be crushed by the debt created, in part, by winning and will wind up not paying for the spectrum anyway is ignored.


So what do the companies plan to do with this painfully obtained wireless capacity?  Some of their ideas can be seen in the new TV ads from Sprint.  Using impressive graphics Sprint lists a few of the cool (at least to Sprint) things you will be able to do.  Things like sending full color pictures to each other on your PDAs or phones. (And you thought people just talking on cell phones while driving was dangerous!) Another, supposedly wonderful thing is that you can download screen savers.  Gee whiz.  I am significantly under-whelmed.


Dave Passmore explores some of the carrier's other plans in his column in the August issue of Business Communications Review and they are just as unimpressive.  Dave does point out the basic dilemma faced by the carriers:  open the mobile device directly to the Internet and the carrier can no longer capture, as Dave puts it "all the revenues" or keep it closed, i.e., limited to the carrier's own services, and "risk reducing minutes of use or losing subscribers."  we have ample proof that the latter would be deadly because of the level of innovation that the carriers have shown themselves to be capable of -- very low.  But Dave misses the reason that his first option is also deadly.


The carriers have been giving away thousands of "free minutes" to try to get customers to go with one carrier or another.  It is now counter productive for a carrier to get customers to actually use their phones because the carrier gets no additional revenue yet has to build up their networks.


The only hope for the carriers is to understand the basic lesson of the iMode system in Japan - open the system to the Internet so that thousands of 3rd parties will create reasons for customers to buy the service, then charge for airtime or message transfer - and stop giving away the future.


disclaimer:  Harvard has been around for more than 300 years by not giving away its future but the above advice is mine alone