Channel Partners

September 1, 1997

24 Min Read

Posted: 09/1997


It’s Personal

By Debera Bell-Beam

The next generation of mobile phone service is personal. The
idea is communications regardless of location–people roaming
freely with personal numbers assigned to them rather than
phones and "find me" call completion that tracks down
anyone, anywhere (just about, any way).

Well, maybe not. It all depends on which protocol wins out.
Some work with codes unique to the phone and not just any
phone–but more about that later. On the other hand, varying
protocols may end up co-existing.

At any rate, greater personal control is the goal, whether
that means accepting a call, refusing it or routing it elsewhere.

If it sounds like the wireless market is still inventing
itself, well, it is. While emerging technologies are improving
service and offerings, the future of digital PCS remains
confusing and ill-defined.

It’s not difficult to imagine the marketing of this personal
product: A leggy model leans forward with a phone the size of a
cigarette lighter in one hand while pulling up data on a
minuscule laptop computer with the other and whispering those
three magic words: personal communications services (PCS). Oh,
yeah, the model, the phone and the computer are, of course, on
the beach–Club Med style. And they’re all surrounded by
unnaturally beautiful people.

Again, maybe not. Once wireless hits Mainstream, USA, as many
predict it will, PCS commercials might feature a harried
homemaker rushing to a soccer game with kids, groceries and dogs
in chaotic cacophony while Mom calmly palms a digital cellular
phone against her ear. Oblivious, because–it’s personal.

It’s personal and irresistible to a consumer society. Let’s
face it, everyone who’s anyone awaits the ultimate cordless phone
that will function as today’s cellular phone does when it’s near
a base station and as a mobile phone when it’s beyond the
station’s range. Wireless voice mail, e-mail and data are among
the possibilities, along with multimedia delivery, cell broadcast
and satellite integration–some very serious applications that
can deliver more than customer service and flashy commercials.

So, does it work, and more importantly, does it bring an
opportunity for resale? Poor voice quality, dropped signals,
eavesdropping and no service once users leave specific coverage
areas–not to mention exorbitant roaming fees–have plagued
mobile service in the past. However, new protocols and
positioning to establish a standard, as opposed to
several, have begun to alleviate these problems.

With mobile telephony facing vast improvement, opportunity is
at hand. Exploiting wireless resale offers expanded service menus
and the advantage of the one-stop-shop strategy. But anxious
service providers should remember, it’s all still in its infancy
and, therefore, a little uncertain.

Born Free

A long-standing problem with mobile telephony in general has
been roaming. Consumers don’t want to lose service because
they’ve crossed an invisible boundary that separates them from
the haves and the have nots. Conversely, they don’t want to be in
the haves group if that means paying a king’s ransom in roaming
fees. Varying technical standards have exacerbated the problem of
one station taking over where the other’s range ends.

This is where GSM (global system for mobile communications)
comes in. GSM uses digital technology rather than analog
technology used initially by cellular phone service which now
also has the digital option (digital sends bursts of information
in pulses, while analog sends a continuous wave).

CDMA (code division multiple access), also called Spread
Spectrum, is another such protocol that uses digital technology.
In CDMA, speech segments are assigned codes and scrambled as they
are transmitted at varying intervals. The receiving PCS phone
unscrambles, decodes and reassembles the call. Proponents of CDMA
say this protocol offers greater long-term capacity advantages.
There are also other protocols, TDMA (time DMA) and FDMA
(frequency DMA), to name two, in the PCS race to become the
standard of choice.

Unlike CDMA and the rest of the pack, GSM assigns a code to
the person and, in turn, allows global roaming where coverage is
provided without much thought to the instrument itself. GMS,
already fairly well established in Europe, uses units of time to
transmit traffic and is compatible with integrated services
digital network (ISDN). Moreover, as an open protocol, it is
designed to use the latest digital technology. Proponents of GSM
say this protocol solves the infrastructure dilemma (and even
cost at some point, because if a common standard is adopted, cost
is bound to come down), but that doesn’t mean everyone will
accept GSM as the standard.

Band on the Run

The GSM Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Association has
assumed the role of mediator of sorts, playing an integral part
in encouraging the adoption of GSM as the PCS standard
and, thereby, enabling customers to roam globally without fear of
falling off the air. The international consortium’s membership
currently includes 239 member companies in 109 countries/areas
aligned to the original GSM 900 MHz frequency band which has been
adapted for use at 1800 MHz in Europe (DCS1800) and 1900 MHz
(PCS1900) in the United States. The companies share technology,
roaming agreements and their goal of global GSM acceptance.

Two hundred networks are currently in live commercial
operation. And the international association reports more than 44
million GSM customers worldwide with 2 million signing up per
month–equivalent to 28 percent of the world’s wireless market.
The association estimates that more than 100 million worldwide
will subscribe by 2000–topping 50 percent of the world’s
wireless market, according to GSM MoU.

Eleven GSM networks have now passed the one-million customer
milestone, and one-third of the world’s GSM network operators
(68, to be exact) in live commercial operation have more than
100,000 customers.

In slightly more than a year and a half, GSM has reached
600,000 customers and more than 500 cities in the United States
and Canada, according to Mike Houghton, a spokesperson for GSM
North America, which is part of GSM MoU. "It took the entire
U.S. cellular industry about two and a half years to reach that
mark," Houghton points out.

The national network of local GSM companies reported 200,000
new customers in May and June. "We’re adding at about a rate
of 3,280 customers a day in North America, which is a pretty fast
clip," Houghton says. Moreover, the number of active GSM
cities has more than quadrupled since March. This is the
equivalent of about five new cities going on line each day.

The Card–Don’t Leave Home Without It

As GSM customers are signed on, two questions arise: First,
how is a number assigned to an individual rather than an
instrument? And, second, what are the security measures to ensure
an individual other than the subscriber does not use the
subscriber’s number?

Subscriptions are recorded on subscriber cards, also called
smart cards. The subscriber identity module (SIM) card looks like
a credit card, but contains an embedded microcomputer with
memory. The subscriber inserts his SIM card into a GSM phone
which, then, immediately becomes "his." The network
checks for validity by authenticating the call back to the
subscriber’s home database through the personal number stored on
the card. Moreover, security is enhanced by full digital
encryption for voice and data calls, according to GSM MoU. Also,
encryption protects against eavesdropping.

CDMA also offers security. Because it was designed initially
for military satellite communications and is resistant to such
interference as jamming, it is considered secure because the
signal is coded and scrambled. However, should SIM cards become
customer preferred, it is likely other standards–CMDA and the
like–would adapt their technology to accommodate user demand,
industry observers say.

Opportunity Knocks

Some GSM-based PCS providers have begun offering wholesale air
time to long distance companies as a distribution channel much
the way underlying carriers offer resellers 1+ on a wholesale

Western Wireless Corp., based in Issaquah, Wash., holds
cellular licenses in 15 western states as well as PCS licenses in
a number of major metro areas in the western United States. It
owns and operates wireless cellular phone systems marketed under
the Cellular One national brand name in 15 states west of the

Western Wireless systems are now active in Portland, Ore.;
Boise, Idaho; El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.-El Paso; Denver;
Des Moines, Iowa-Quad Cities; Honolulu; Oklahoma City; and Salt
Lake City, and in more than 100 basic trading areas (BTAs) to
include Seattle, Phoenix, Austin, Texas; San Antonio; Cincinnati;
and St. Louis. Through a partnership, Western Wireless recently
launched a Tulsa system through a C-Block license (its other
licenses were acquired in A and B Blocks).

"We’ve chosen to go to market with a mix of distribution
channels, and our goal is to have product when and where a
customer wants to buy," says Jane Stonecipher, executive
director of distribution for Western Wireless. This means they
have direct sales reps and their own company-owned retail
location for their GSM phone marketed under VoiceStream, as well
as working through other retail distributors.

Resale is a small but growing segment of Western’s channels of
distribution. The program was first offered in the second half of
1996. Stonecipher sees resale as an important part of Western’s
business plan, because "in many cases, our resellers may use
channels of distribution that are complimentary to our own, which
means more customers will be on the VoiceStream network.

the Numbers

Global Systems for Mobile
Communications (GSM) in North America:

Customers: 600,000 total in
slightly more than a year and one-half. In May and June,
200,000 new customers were signed up–about 3,280 daily.

Cities: Ten GSM North America
companies have active service in more than 500 cities
(20,000 POPs and above)and serve 85.7 covered POPs across
these markets. That’s 30 percent of GSM’s national
footprint in North America.

Cellsites: GSM carriers have
5,565 active cell sites (more than the entire U.S.
cellular phone industry built in its first six and
one-half years).

National Coverage: GSM companies
provide service in 27 U.S. PCS license areas with active
coverage in more than half of all U.S. states and three
Canadian provinces. With completion of U.S. broadband PCS
auctions, GSM coverage totals more than 260 million POPs,
reaching 98.3 percent of the U.S. population, and 28
million POPs in Canada.

Source:GSM North America

"Resale is a common part of the business plans of people
who inquire about our program. A number of them are looking for a
way to expand their services either by bundling services together
on the same bill or being able to offer these services to their
existing customers," Stonecipher says. "Resellers can
buy air time and services at wholesale rates which they can then
mark up to rates of their own choosing, so they have total
discretion in defining the kind of rate plan and how they package
it with other services.

"If not the first PCS carrier, we’re among the first to
have resale customers live on our network," Stonecipher
adds. "Our service is available for real customers today,
and not off in the future."

Toronto-based Microcell Connexions, a wholly owned subsidiary
of Microcell Telecom, is a wireless wholesaler that sets itself
apart with an open network structure and a business plan that
includes wholesaling bundled or unbundled network services to
providers. "We can offer attractive solutions to companies
and entrepreneurs who wish to enter the wireless communications
market," says Norman Wai, Microcell Connexions COO.

Microcell has implemented its network in Greater Montreal,
Quebec City, Ottawa-Hull and Toronto and is preparing to launch
the Vancouver area by mid-1998. By the end of next year, its
network will directly reach more than 60 percent of the Canadian
population. Microcell also is negotiating roaming agreements to
extend its coverage to some 90 percent of Canada’s population.

Connexions deploys and operates at 1.9 GHz and is the only
GSM-based provider in Canada. Microcell’s core services include
voice, call management and roaming. It’s value-added offerings
are messaging, data and long distance. As a pure-play wholesaler,
Microcell has no competing interests in the retail market.

"We only do wholesale, and based on the response
we’re getting, we certainly feel there’s a demand for such
wholesale offerings," says Linda Paradis, vice president of
business development for Microcell Telecom. Microcell’s approach
is to separate the network from the service provider as a way to
stimulate both service providers and minute use. "We think
that with deregulation and with all that’s happening in the
telecom market, segmentation will be greater than it is today;
therefore, leaving room for a lot of different market approaches
and strategies," Paradis says.

Bethesda, Md.-based Sprint Spectrum/American Personal
Communications (APC) operates its network in the Washington,
D.C.-Baltimore area. APC is an affiliate of Sprint PCS. Sprint
Spectrum/APC does offer a resale program, but so far the response
has been less than enthusiastic. "We have a plan that we
offer, but there hasn’t been tremendous demand, and it hasn’t
even gone beyond informal discussions. With the uncertainty of
the C-Block guys definitely coming up, the competition out there
is pretty intense," says spokesperson Russell Wilkerson.

Marketing wireless is akin to walking on quicksand.
"There are so many innovations in marketing wireless–the
ground shifts so quickly–that maybe resellers just aren’t ready
to step in," Wilkerson speculates.

Wilkerson is able to help differentiate, at least for the
consumer, between GSM and CDMA. "They both play the same
music, but it’s how they play it," Wilkerson says. Perhaps
hedging its bets, Sprint PCS has announced it is going to build a
CDMA network that will co-exist with Sprint Spectrum/APC’s GSM

International travelers will likely look to GSM for global
roaming convenience. And, if consumers want the all-in-one phone
or data fax, they will find CDMA unable to respond right now. The
fact is CDMA is more robust, but it is also a newer technology
that likely will be able to offer those services a bit further
down the road, Wilkerson says. Sprint PCS is building out its
national network with Sprint Spectrum/APC figured into the mix.
(However, Sprint PCS recently announced a roaming agreement with
Mobility Canada of Toronto that is targeted for end-of-the-year
availability when dual-band phones that operate on both digital
1.9 GHz CDMA networks and 800 MHz analog cellular networks are
expected to be available for retail purchase.)

Aerial Communications, based in Chicago, has launched in six
markets: Minneapolis; Kansas City, Mo.; Houston; Tampa-Orlando,
Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Columbus, Ohio. Although it does not yet
offer one yet, Aerial is looking into the possibilities of
starting a resale program. "Reselling is obviously something
that’s very important in the wireless industry,"
spokesperson Dan Kubera says.

Omnipoint Communications, based in Cedar Knolls, N.J., has
launched sites in the five boroughs of New York City and parts of
northern New Jersey. Philadelphia is expected to be the next city
to go up. Omnipoint is considering a resale program but is still
evaluating it as an effective distribution channel. "Because
of some PCS companies’ channel mix, distribution, customer care
and management capabilities, the decision to pursue a reseller
channel is predetermined," says Adam Sewall, director of
national accounts and strategy. "In our case, Omnipoint has
a strong mix of direct sales, telemarketing, retailers and
company-owned stores. Therefore, careful consideration has to be
given as to how Omnipoint can enter the reselling market."

Sewall says a reseller channel can cause confusion to the
customer base, creating a challenge for resellers and underlying
carriers as well. "There is definitely cause to be concerned
that any reseller that seeks to establish its own brand identity
or to co-brand is going to face a formidable challenge. The
consumer will as such be assaulted by not only multiple service
offerings with multiple price plans but a further confused state
of jargon, alphabet-soup acronyms and non-compatible

Resellers Cry Foul

By Debera Bell-Beam

The love-hate relationship of late that
has developed between telecom resellers and carriers is
blossoming. Wireless communications, still in its infancy
as an emerging technology, has joined in the fray with
its resellers and carriers debating whether the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) should protect wireless

At the heart of the matter, resellers
assert carriers are employing unfair competitive tactics,
a question that as yet remains undetermined.

In the midst of this wireless debate
stand two associations: The National Wireless Resellers
Association (NWRA) and the Personal Communications
Industry Association (PCIA). The NWRA says the FCC should
strengthen oversight. The PCIA says it should get out of
regulating "business relationships." The NWRA
submitted recent survey results to the FCC in response to
a petition filed by the carrier group asking that
personal communications services (PCS) carriers be
exempted from mandatory resale obligations.

The NWRA, which estimates that
resellers serve nearly 2 million consumers and account
for about 6 percent of total industry revenue, said
nearly 100 wireless resellers were surveyed with about
half responding. The resellers association asserts that
despite legal obligations of carriers to provide the same
bulk discounts to resellers that carriers offer retail
customers, more than 70 percent of resellers reported
being denied access to those discounts.

And, although carriers cannot restrict
resale of their services, 50 percent of resellers also
reported being denied access to a cellular resale
agreement, and more than 60 percent said they were
refused access to a PCS resale agreement. These are all
unlawful acts," says David Gusky, executive director
for the NWRA. PCIA President Jay Kitchen recently told
audience members at IBC’s Wireless Resale Conference
(June 19 Orlando, Fla.), "Mandated regulations
requiring resale agreements are unnecessary and can be
counterproductive in today’s competitive wireless
industry. A carrier/reseller relationship cannot be
mandated by a regulatory body because it is, at its core,
a business relationship. Resellers that add value do not
need FCC protection."

Moreover, regulatory safeguards are
"no longer relevant in the competitively charged
world of wireless," according to separate statements
recently released by the PCIA.

The NWRA maintains, however, that
"the FCC must strengthen its oversight of the
wireless resale market to ensure that reseller rights are
protected, and consumers are able to enjoy the full range
of services resellers bring to the marketplace."

The NWRA survey further found that
retail air time rates offered by wireless resellers
average 10 percent lower than those offered by wireless
carriers. The average monthly retail bill is $65, and the
average wholesale/retail margin is 27 percent.

In addition to lower air rates,
resellers said they offer detailed billing, prepaid
service, and rental and loaner phones. The survey also
found resellers often bundle a range of telecom services
in line with today’s one-stop shop trend. Moreover, many
resellers target specific market niches that include
small business, construction and universities.


The Next Generation (of Wireless)

By Debera Bell-Beam

When personal communications services (PCS) was launched in
the United States after the 1995 Federal Communications
Commission’s (FCC’s) spectrum auctions, the question turned to
technology. CDMA wasn’t ready at that point. Nevertheless, a few
companies had already made serious commitments to the as-yet
untried technology. This left them unprepared to launch the
networks they were starting to build out.

Smaller companies with more limited resources (as compared to
the telecom giants–AT&T, Sprint, the Baby Bells, etc.), were
consumed with speed-to-market concerns. To succeed, they had to
get in quickly and start providing services to gain a customer
base–and toe-hold–before the big guys broke through. Time to
market, ready technology and features availability made GSM
especially attractive to them, says Bukasa Tshilombo, associate
director of World Wireless Markets for New York-based Northern
Business Information.

GSM, on the other hand, was a tested technology that already
had been implemented in several countries in Europe and the
Asia-Pacific. Also, GSM offered some very attractive
features–the SIM card, to name one, which has many implications
for future services.

Most have come to agree that CDMA is a preferred technology
for certain applications, such as wireless local loop or networks
with large capacity requirements. And someone going to market
today may still choose GSM for its applications and mature
network, Tshilombo says, but time to market is no longer an
issue, because CDMA is on line. And, it has been joined by other
emerging technologies to call themselves standards for wireless

Tshilombo says he doesn’t subscribe to the opinion that one
technology is better than the other. "Rather, I like to
break it up into reasons why one operator would choose one
technology over the other." (For example, features vs.
capacity.) But eventually, CDMA will mature and be able to offer
numerous features as GSM does now, Tshilombo observes. The answer
may be coexistence.

The Next Generation

Just as analog gave way to digital, the third generation is on
the horizon. Next will be a technology that integrates the
features of current standards, Tshilombo says. Because roaming
will be an issue, either real or perceived by end users,
"the next generation, the third generation of technology, is
going to deal with the issues of interoperability between
standards," he predicts.

But, "that’s an expensive proposition," according to
Jane Zweig, senior vice president of marketing for Wheaton,
Md.-based Shosteck & Associates, who believes "the
market’s big enough to support multiple standards."

But multiband, multimode handsets capable of handling GSM and
CDMA would be one quick solution to the sticky issue of consumer
demand and network interoperability. "We’re not there,
yet." Tshilombo says. "Eventually, it will come,
because there will be those needs that operators will have to
address, and therefore, manufacturers will have to address. The
question is always that of demand–volume." If enough people
want that kind of mobility, they’re likely to get it.

"Even though we have moved away from a single standard in
the United States, eventually, they will come together either
through interoperability arrangements or just one single
standard. But that’s really a long time ahead of us," he


An excellent resale opportunity has begun with prepaid
cellular and prepaid wireless services. But there’s also the
issue of distribution that operators must deal with. PCS was
designed to address the mass market. But reaching that market is
no easy task, Tshilombo says. Using third parties and multiple
distribution channels–resellers, retail stores, direct sales–is
critical to many of these operators.

Once customers understand they can get service anywhere,
anytime, the issue turns to what they can get for their money.
Consumers will look for one-stop shops for such attractive
offerings as a deal on long distance, a paging service and the

The bottom line for these providers is even though it’s
probably wise to stick to one area of expertise, it comes down to
the dollar and to reaching the customer, Tshilombo says. If a
service provider is only interested in providing one type of
service, and the customer wants a one-stop shop, the customer
will go somewhere else, he says.

The reality is that resale agreements are the only option
other than network investment for these wireless services.

And Zweig’s advice to resale hopefuls is more difficult than
it sounds. "Understand the rate plan you’re selling.

"It’s going to get so confusing out there that resellers
will really have to understand what they’re selling and make sure
their customers are happy," she says. "That will become
an increasingly difficult challenge." Churn may also be
problematic, thanks to no-contract service offered by PCS
providers to attract customers who won’t receive from PCS the
one-cent phones they got from cellular providers (that generally
came complete with at least a binding one-year service contract).
Among the problems with PCS service, though, is how it stacks up
against cellular.

Smoke and Mirrors

Among the claims are clarity and longer battery life. But stop
someone on the street and ask the difference between cellular and
PCS service. The answer is most likely a blank look.

"Cellular can do everything that PCS can do–and does. To
the end user, there’s absolutely no difference between cellular
and PCS," Zweig says. "Specific technologies are
irrelevant to them." The difference comes down to coverage,
quality of network, quality of reception on the network, how well
the networks are built out–at least those are the issues
resellers must tackle to convince customers to choose one service
over another.

The whole PCS issue is really a marketing one–establishing
brand, distribution and the feeling of "something
different," Zweig says. Just as customers flocked to a free
cell phone, PCS providers hope to draw customers through the
likes of first incoming minute free, a cute phone and no service
contracts. However, cellular has since adopted those marketing
tools along with just about every other PCS operator, so the
differentiators have disappeared. Ultimately, the winner will be
the one who has the best brand and distribution, Zweig says.

The Big Issue

Roaming will remain the big issue preceded by the big
question: Who are the operators’ customers? Comprising about 12
percent of total PCS revenues, according to industry researchers,
roaming is not yet a big portion of their revenues, even though
it is generally perceived to be a huge consumer concern. Coverage
for new operators initially will be limited.

GSM now is facing a disadvantage at the hands of Washington,
D.C.-based Pocket Communications, Inc., which bought more
licenses than any other GSM operator in the United States, Zweig
says. Pocket won 43 licenses covering more than 35 million people
in the FCC spectrum auctions.

Unfortunately, Pocket filed Chapter 11 reorganization in the
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland, Northern
Division, last April. At the time, its books showed about $1
billion in assets and $1.5 billion in liabilities, principally in
loans owed to the FCC, according to company statements.

A Forward Look

The PCS market is going to be a difficult one to penetrate
successfully. Unless they are very well financed and build up
their network very well, very quickly, providers are going to
face tremendous difficulties. Marketing, likewise, is going to be
tough going. Zweig predicts "a difficult, expensive and
perhaps bloody experience for an operator, because the cellular
guys are not going to stand still. Their networks are constantly
getting better. They’re constantly putting in more cell sites to
fill in. The networks are paid for, and they’re deploying
digital, and all of those things that PCS appeared to have a head
start in and an advantage over years ago–but that’s not the case

MCI can come in as a pretty strong reseller, and its got the
all important branding, Zweig says. "MCI, right now, is a
little disadvantaged because it made an alliance with NextWave,
another PCS provider. And NextWave probably will never get
built–it is certainly in need of some life support."

AT&T, Sprint and PrimeCo will succeed as PCS
providers, Zweig predicts.

AT&T’s strategy is clear. Its 1900 MHz networks (using
TDMA protocol) are linked to its 800 MHz, so AT&T will be
providing a nationwide network, as will Sprint through Sprint
Spectrum/APC’s GSM network overlayed with Sprint PCS’ CDMA
network. "But Sprint Spectrum and PCS are fully reliant on
digital reliability. They don’t have 800 partners for any kind of
fill in. They are forming roaming agreements, but it remains to
be seen how complete that is," Zweig notes.

PrimeCo Personal Communications, LP’s, strategy is likewise
very clear. Its parent companies are AirTouch Communications,
Bell Atlantic, NYNEX and US WEST Media Group. "They’re going
to be doing what AT&T is doing, basically," Zweig says.

AT&T Wireless Corp.’s digital PCS network recently
launched in Arizona and central and southern Texas but is
expected to be on line in most of its markets–82 percent of the
country, including 41 of the 49 largest U.S. cities–by the end
of this year. AT&T already offers dual-mode phones that make
analog and digital technologies compatible, and it has roaming
agreements in both Canada and Europe.

AT&T knows this is a tough new market in which success
will be measured by coverage and customer service. Anyone who
says he’s got "newer, better, cheaper, faster–that’s
blatantly wrong," AT&T Wireless Spokesperson Ken Woo
says. "When it gets down to the real nitty gritty, they all
do the same thing."

Woo believes resellers will play an important role in
wireless. "As competition continues to heat up and more
competitors enter the market place, it’s important to have your
distribution channels locked up, and resellers are an important
part of that."

And he warns resellers that the big challenge is "lining
up with the right company. You don’t want to sign up with some
company that’s going over the edge in six months. Do your
homework and check out the companies you want to do business
with. Make sure they’re solid financially."

Moreover, when the promotions are over, there’s probably not a
whole lot of difference among competitors, Woo says.
"Coverage and customer service are the only things that will
distinguish one competitor from another."

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