17 Sep 2008

US cellular pioneer urges US carriers to go (back) to emerging markets

There seem to be some interesting messages in John Stanton's speech at last week's CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment show in San Francisco. Stanton's profile is such that his comments are bound to hit the headlines, as with this write-up from the Register. Stanton was co-founder of pioneering US wireless carrier McCaw Cellular. Cade Metz, the Register's man at the event in San Francisco, says that Stanton "questioned the sanity" of the T-Mobile US, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel CEOs who had "spent the morning discussing their gradual transition to... networks that accept any device and any application".

Stanton articulated the view that this approach is tantamount to making the mobile operator an access provider, stating that access is (or is fast becoming) a commodity business. He argues that "if you become a pure access technology, in a saturated environment, you’re ceding yourself to growing at the rate of the economy." Stanton feels that big European and Asian carriers are "already limited by economic growth.... and US carriers are well on their way to the same fate."

Metz reports Stanton's two suggested remedies for this. Firstly, US carriers need to "own significant content", something they have "essentially ceded... to the Googles". Secondly, Stanton invited US telcos to follow his lead by investing abroad.

The first point prompted a number of incredulous responses on the Register's comments page, mostly focused on how carriers worldwide have not fared well with a walled garden approach to mobile content. I can only add that in 6+ years of attending telecoms sector conferences and talking to telco execs, I've sensed more and more people coming around to the view MNOs are best advised to be good citizens in a multimedia ecosystem which involves content owners, aggregators, distributors etc. all getting their slice of the cake in exchange for bearing some of the risk around developing new products.

Stanton now oversees the Trinity Partnership, which invests in wireless-related companies and runs various international mobile networks, including Neuvatel PCS (Bolivia), Comcel Haiti. These two companies operate in markets where mobile penetration stood at, respectively, 45.11% and 37.29% by June 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media's WCIS. Clearly, there is a lot more room to grow here than in saturated Europe and near-saturated North America, hence Stanton's advice to his compatriots.

It's heartening to see someone so prominent talking up emerging telecoms markets as a smart bet. Here at Com World Series HQ, we also believe that developing markets worldwide are where the action is for telcos and their suppliers. We enjoy navigating the challenges of connecting these two groups in locations as diverse as Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and Abuja, Nigeria.

While doing so, I've certainly observed that European and Middle Eastern telcos have a collectively much bigger presence in emerging markets than US companies. The latter seem to have been in retreat for some time. For example, in the few years I've covered telecoms markets in Eastern Europe, I've seen Metromedia International Group dwindle from a collection of cellular and broadcast radio assets around Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. I believe the company's only holding in that region now is Georgian cellco Magticom. In South America, US household names such as Verizon and BellSouth have been divesting assets since earlier this decade.

Having not long returned from our Americas Com conference in Rio de Janeiro, and having toured a few South American countries earlier this year, I am struck by the strong position of Spain's Telefonica, Mexico's America Movil and, to a lesser extent, European players such as Telecom Italia, Portugal Telecom and Millicom International Cellular in the region.

John Stanton said last week "the major American companies have essentially retrenched, which means scale is going to be ceded to foreign companies." In the regions I cover, it feel like that has already happened.