A New Visionary In Our Midst?
The US has lacked a telecom network visionary for nearly 2 decades. There have certainly been strong and capable leaders, such as John Malone who not only predicted but brought about the 500 channel LinearTV model. But there hasn’t been someone like Bill McGowan who broke up AT&T or Craig McCaw who first had the vision to build a national, seamless wireless network, countering decades of provincial, balkanized thinking. Both of them fundamentally changed the thinking around public service provider networks.
But with a strong message to the markets in Washington DC on March 11 from Masayoshi Son, Sprint’s Chairman, the 20 year wait may finally be over. Son did what few have been capable of doing over the past 15-20 years since McGowan exited stage left and McCaw sold out to MaBell: telling it like it is. The fact is that today’s bandwidth prices are 20-150x higher than they should be with current technology.
This is no one’s fault in particular and in fact to most people (even informed ones) all measures of performance-to-price compared to 10 or 20 years ago look great. But, as Son illustrated, things could be much, much better. And he’s willing to make a bet on getting the US, the most advanced and heterogeneous society, back to a leadership role with respect to the ubiquity and cost of bandwidth. To get there he needs more scale and one avenue is to merge with T-Mobile.
There have been a lot of naysayers as to the possibility of a Sprint-T-Mo hookup, including leaders at the FCC. But don’t count me as one; it needs to happen. Initially skeptical when the rumors first surfaced in December, I quickly reasoned that a merger would be the best outcome for the incentive auctions. A merger would eliminate spectrum caps as a deterrent to active bidding and maximize total proceeds. It would also have a better chance of developing a credible third competitor with equal geographic reach. Then in January the FCC and DoJ came out in opposition to the merger.
In February, though, Comcast announced the much rumored merger with TW and Son jumped on the opportunity to take his case for merging to a broader stage. He did so in front of a packed room of 300 communications pundits, press and politicos at the US Chamber of Commerce’s prestigious Hall of Flags; a poignant backdrop for his own rags to riches story. Son’s frank honesty about the state of broadband for the American public vs the rest of the world, as well as Sprint’s own miserable current performance were impressive. It’s a story that resonates with my America’s Bandwidth Deficit presentation.
Here are some reasons the merger will likely pass:
- The FCC can’t approve one horizontal merger (Comcast/TW) that brings much greater media concentration and control over content distribution, while disallowing a merger of two small players (really irritants as far as AT&T and Verizon are concerned).
- Son has a solid track record of disruption and doing what he says.
- The technology and economics are in his favor.
- The vertically integrated service provider model will get disrupted faster and sooner as Sprint will have to think outside the box, partner, and develop ecosystems that few in the telecom industry have thought about before; or if they have, they’ve been constrained by institutional inertia and hidebound by legacy regulatory and industry siloes.
Here are some reasons why it might not go through:
- The system is fundamentally corrupt. But the new FCC Chairman is cast from a different mold than his predecessors and is looking to make his mark on history.
- The FCC shoots itself in the foot over the auctions. Given all the issues and sensitivities around incentive auctions the FCC wants this first one to succeed as it will serve as a model for all future spectrum refarming issues.
- The FCC and/or DoJ find in the public interest that the merger reduces competition. But any analyst can see that T-Mo and Sprint do not have sustainable models at present on their own; especially when all the talk recently in Barcelona was already about 5G.
Personally I want Son’s vision to succeed because it’s the vision I had in 1997 when I originally brought the 2.5-2.6 (MMDS) spectrum to Sprint and later in 2001 and 2005 when I introduced Telcordia’s 8x8 MIMO solutions to their engineers. Unfortunately, past management regimes at Sprint were incapable of understanding the strategies and future vision that went along with those investment and technology pitches. Son has a different perspective (see in particular minute 10 of this interview with Walt Mossberg) with his enormous range of investments and clear understanding of price elasticity and the marginal cost of minutes and bits.
To be successful Sprint’s strategy will need to be focused, but at the same time open and sharing in order to simultaneously scale solutions across the three major layers of the informational stack (aka the InfoStack):
- upper (application and content)
- middle (control)
- lower (access and transport)
This is the challenge for any company that attempts to disrupt the vertically integrated telecom or LinearTV markets; the antiquated and overpriced ones Son says he is going after in his presentation. But the US market is much larger and more robust than the rest of the world, not just geographically, but also from a 360 degree competitive perspective where supply and demand are constantly changing and shifting.
Ultimate success may well rest in the control layer, where Apple and Google have already built up formidable operating systems which control vastly profitably settlement systems across multiple networks. What few realize is that the current IP stack does not provide price signals and settlement systems that clear supply and demand between upper and lower layers (north-south) or between networks (east-west) in the newly converged “informational” stack of 1 and 2-way content and communications.
If Sprint’s Chairman realizes this and succeeds in disrupting those two markets with his strategy then he certainly will be seen as a visionary on par with McGowan and McCaw.