The FCC Reports on a Rapidly Changing Industry

Carl Weinschenk

Nothing better points to the winds of change than dueling headlines-or, in this case, partially dueling headlines -- within a day or so of each other.


On one hand, The Federal Communications Commission released a report last week that says that AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile increased their market share from 85 percent of wireless subscribers in 2006 to 90.3 percent last year. The other headline was that Google has introduced a voice service for Gmail.


The Google voice initiative is significant in and of itself. In the bigger picture, it is emblematic of the growth of mobile VoIP. While the dominance of the four carriers is unlikely to fade much-at least statistically-what the numbers represent certainly will. The bottom line is that 90.3 percent market dominance in 2012 or 2013 will be a lot different than 90.3 percent market dominance in 2009 in terms of the services these subscribers use and the revenue they produce.


The mobile companies will retain their primacy because people still will need a way to link their smart and feature phones to the Internet. Increasingly, however, the bulk of the traffic will be VoIP. The point isn't that the four companies will be hurting-they certainly will be happy to recover all that capacity as mobile video and other more lucrative services grow-but that the very nature of the business model will change, and in a way that isn't predictable.


This will be an opportunity for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). In such a scenario, the MVNO would be a tenant on a major carriers' network. It would offer the basic level of connectivity and, perhaps, value-added features. The basic task of the MVNO will be to facilitate subscribers' mobile VoIP connections.


Leave it to a vendor -- in this case, Cisco -- to sum things up clearly. After all, vendors sell arms to both sides:

Whether today's competitors cooperate and compete on different levels, the issue of who owns the subscriber will determine tomorrow's winners, said Andy Capener, director of service provider marketing of mobility at Cisco Systems Inc.

The bottom line is that the FCC report no doubt offers a tremendous amount of valuable information. At the end of the day, however, it is an anachronism-or soon will be. The four major carriers will find a way to dominate, especially those savvy enough to have learned the lessons of the seismic shifts that affected wireline carriers during the past decade.

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