Spurred by years of frustration with AT&T, Verizon, Orange and the like, I wrote a half-serious Monday Note a few months ago (Steve, Please Buy Us A Carrier!) that imagined an Apple wireless universe. Simple pricing, no-surprise phone bills, no-tricks agreements. There would be dancing in the streets…
Unfortunately (I concluded), if Apple were to acquire a carrier — T-Mobile, say, to keep it out of AT&T’s clutches — they’d be saddled with a legacy business, its infrastructure, its people, its culture. That’s not the Apple way. They didn’t get into retail by buying up and remodeling Circuit City stores; the company builds from the ground up.
There are other problems. A single carrier – any carrier — would have limited geographic impact; the potential billions in service revenue is attractive, but it doesn’t serve Apple’s #1 business: selling hardware; wrestling with the FCC over regulatory issues would be intolerable.
Give us a carrier…It’s a nice fantasy but Apple isn’t going to spend tens of billions to buy a headache.
A few weeks later, I was politely but firmly admonished by my daughter’s significant other: Yes, buying a carrier – or a string of carriers – probably isn’t in Apple’s playbook, but let’s not be so quick to kick them out of the game. There is, he said, a better, simpler way for Apple to indulge their iPhone customers.
Today, Apple uses its cash to buy capacity from parts suppliers and manufacturing contractors. Why not do something similar with wireless carriers? The Cupertino company could buy “capacity” (minutes and gigabytes) from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or even China Mobile, Vodafone, and the intriguingly-named Tata Teleservices. Apple would become a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, a company that provides cell phone services that ride on someone else’s infrastructure.
There are dozens of MVNOs operating in the US: Virgin Mobile, Firefly, Straight Talk… Even 7-Eleven, the convenience store giant, offers its “own” cellular network: 7-Eleven Speak Out Wireless. I found one MVNO, H2O Wireless, that claims to “work” with iPhones and Android devices, although keep in mind the (in)famous “Some Restrictions Apply”.
This is a much livelier scene than I imagined. In 2006, according to the felicitously named mobileisgood.com, there were only 330 MVNOs. Wiki the term today and you’ll read that “there are 645 active MVNO operations in the world.” (For the modest sum of $1,125, you can buy a PDF copy of the MVNO Directory 2011 which lists all 645 companies. One free detail: 205 new companies in one year!)
Insiders tell me this is easier said than done. They’re right. Wireless networks are complicated. Picture the attempt to superimpose Apple-style simplicity on top of layers upon layers of old hardware and patchwork software that span several “somewhat compatible” networks. Once again, an idea that sounds good is, in practice, unfeasible. Worse, the beautiful theory might lead to the sorriest kind of mediocrity: The product that’s impossible to fix and can’t be killed.
Still, I’m optimistic. I find the froth, the growth of MNVO companies exciting, encouraging. Whether they admit it or not, the incumbents know their culture isn’t going to foster innovation, only incrementation. For them, MVNOs might be a way to wage a proxy war against the competition by attracting innovators to their side — until the unruly mercenaries kill the overlord that engaged them.
Back to Apple, they could buy, rather cheaply, a number of MVNOs or even build their own. If 7-Eleven can do it…
Now we find out that as far back as 2005, “Jobs initially hoped to create his own network with the unlicensed spectrum that Wi-Fi uses rather than work with the mobile operators…” This came out in a talk given last week by John Stanton, a cellular industry pioneer, at a Law Seminars conference in Seattle. No real surprise: Jobs wasn’t fond of carriers. He considered them to be obstacles rather than instruments of progress and was naturally inclined to look for ways around them. We know what happened. Jobs ended up working with carriers — but only if they accepted Apple’s control over the handset features and iTunes and App Store content sales.
End of story? Not quite.
Take a look at the recently-announced Republic Wireless, a hybrid carrier that rides on a combination of WiFi networks and cellular infrastructure. The phone, a LG Optimus Android device, costs $199 upfront and the service goes for $19/month, with unlimited minutes, data, and text. No hidden fees, just sales tax. Free roaming in the US over Sprint’s network. Free WiFi calls to the US from anywhere in the world. No contract, no termination fee, cancel when you want. This is far from the $100+/month, two-year indentureship that AT&T offers its iPhone users.
Reactions to the new service, one of a broad array offered by Bandwidth.com (a Carolina company that presents itself as a “Complete BUSINESS Communications Provider”) range from guarded to enthusiastic. As Ina Fried of All Things D points out, Some Restrictions (Still) Apply:
“…the company wants to deliver most of its service over Wi-Fi, using cellular more as a backup for when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Customers who…gobble up too much cellular data or wireless minutes will be asked to find another carrier.”
The company buys 3G network capacity from Sprint. Return too often to the “all you can eat” network buffet and management will escort you out.
We’ll have to wait a few months to see what happens next. Will Republic Wireless grow into a viable, disruptive business, proving Jobs was right to look for a way to build a hybrid carrier? Will its business model fail because $19/month won’t be enough to pay the Sprint bill? Or will Republic Wireless end up as a beta for Apple’s own hybrid network?
An afterthought before we close.
Last week, we heard a titillating rumor: an Amazon smartphone would come out late next year. At first, I dismissed it as unrealistic. Then, I looked at my brand new Kindle Fire and marveled again at the way Amazon “picked Android’s lock”. The company took the Android Open Source code, added its own UI, applications, services and app store. The result is an ‘‘unofficial” Android device without any Google control on it, without the Trojan Horse apps. Further, by slotting its own browser between the Amazon customer and the Google search engine, Bezos & Co. keep accumulating user data without sharing any of it with their Mountain View frenemies. Why not apply this newly developed arrangement to an Amazon smartphone?
I also realized that, in order to feed data to its Kindles, Amazon developed Whispernet, a 3G network riding other carriers‘ infrastructure — which sounds like an MVNO of sorts.
We know the Kindle Fire model of being sold at cost or at a small loss because it boosts the company’s real business: selling things and content. The hypothetical Amazon smartphone (hardware + MVNO contract) would be priced in the same spirit.
More disruption on the way?