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Friday, May 19, 2006

Wireless business plans, spectrum and WRC '07

It hasn't yet received much attention, but there is a major international conference coming up late next year. The World Radiocommunication Conference is run by the ITU. A fair amount of what goes on at WRC is not especially relevant to mobile communications and the type of service & infrastructure I generally cover - there's lots of stuff about satellite communications and even orbits. But it also reviews & revises global the Radio Regulations, an international treaty.

In the past, it had run every 2-3 years - Oct '95, Oct '97, May '00 and Jun '03. This time around, however, there will have been a gap of over 4 years, until November of 2007.

Quite a bit will have happened during those 4 years, which could make the outcome very interesting from the point of view of the mobile industry:

- Unlicenced spectrum (& especially WiFi) has fostered a great deal of innovation, investment, deployment and commercial impetus
- 3G technologies have been deployed successfully - albeit late, and with patchy-at-best uptake
- Mobile devices have evolved to the point at which multiradio, application-centric communications are an increasing reality
- 2G technologies have continued to reach out to 100's of millions of new subscribers per year
- IP communications has become completely entrenched in the fixed telecoms world, and has started bleeding over into mobile, with unpredictable results
- Regulators have been innovating in areas such as spectrum trading, technology-neutrality, different auction techniques, setting committments for spectrum licensees
- Satellite-based services for mobile users have been confined to small niches (Iridium, Inmarsat etc) with the exception of GPS and (possibly) DMB mobile TV

Now, I haven't had a chance to trawl through all the various agendas and what these might imply for current or future mobile operators or wireless broadband providers.

But it seems clear to me that Nov 2007 may well alter the future economics of a whole variety of wireless industry business models. Maybe we'll end up with more spectrum for 3G, or a push towards more tech-neutrality, or a recognition that unlicensed spectrum generates economic & social benefits. Who knows? I imagine there's going to be a whole lot of strategising & lobbying going on over the next 18 months.

I'm wondering what this means for any "big decisions" taken in the intervening period. Is anyone really going to want to commit to a vision for 4G , or 3G "Long Term Evolution" before they know the outcomes? Just how much of a risk is there that something game-changing might come out of Geneva next year? If I was a CFO or investor, I'd want to know before signing off on anything particularly expensive.

To be honest, I don't know enough about the conference, its possible implications, or the processes that lead to recommendations. I need to get my head around it. But at least it's a "known unknown", a "rigidly defined area of uncertainty & doubt". But crucially, various decision-makers I've asked over the last couple of weeks haven't even heard of WRC, or know what it might imply. I strongly suspect that some "regulatory affairs" departments are on top of things, but I haven't seen much sign that they're liaising closely with people at the coalface of service and infrastructure development.

I'm wondering if it's another area of uncertainty & complexity which, whatever the outcomes, could have a negative short-term effect in delaying wireless deployments and investments. It could mean, for example, that the cellular industry takes a break from thinking about faster air interfaces beyond HSUPA, and concentrates on the transport/backhaul infrastructure side of things, which needs a huge upgrade anyway.

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