October 1, 2001
Unified Signal Powers Virtual Wireless Operators
By Josh Long
Unified Signal Holding Inc. is ready to give its partners the tools to provide their customers wireless services without the common barriers to entry.The Bellevue, Wash.-based startup spent three years hashing out the business development and technical issues. Now 10 employees strong, Unified Signal is functioning as the back office and customer care provider behind national retailers, traditional agents and other companies that want to resell telecom services. The back office system also is available to partners that want to represent carriers in the agent model. The agent would pay Unified Signal a percentage of its commissions. The company’s ability to empower a reseller is its biggest asset, according to Unified Signal president and CEO Paris Holt. Tapping Unified Signal’s software, retailers, agents and service, providers can resell services with no barriers to entry and minimal costs. Three partners, including a master agent, an Internet marketing firm and an emerging prepaid wireless provider, are set to offer cellular services to their direct customers and respective channel partners.During an August interview, Holt said that he expected his partners to acquire 500,000 customers within the next 24 months. Unified Signal, which purchases wholesale services from carriers, has developed back office tools necessary to acquire, provision, bill and manage customers. In short, Unified Signal is providing companies the means to metamorphose into a virtual wireless provider. Rather than operating as a wireless reseller, Unified Signal plays the invisible middleman, giving its partners the tools to offer wireless service to end users as well as channel partners, such as sub agents, CLECs and resellers. Unified Signal has spent the past three years creating business requirements and developing the technology to fulfill the business obligations. So far the company has injected $10 million and was halfway through to closing a $1.5 million funding round as of mid-August. Gearing up for a commercial launch has proved difficult.“It was a nightmare, the hardest thing we ever built in our lives,” says Holt, who co-founded a large wireless reseller in the ’90s. “The technology is very state-of-the-art. It does what our clients need [it] to do.” Unified Signal’s partners receive a proprietary operating system, which includes a customer acquisition web site, service delivery and carrier procurement platform, a customer care center and convergent billing system.A partner ultimately will be able to offer various communications services and products on one bill through the mail or online. “The client does nothing but sell,” says Holt. Putting it TogetherHow does Unified Signal pull it off?For starters, the company has signed wholesale agreements with national wireless carriers and is negotiating with other service providers to offer local, long distance, paging and Internet services. Unified Signal also plans to sign agreements with utility companies as markets throughout the country are deregulated.
Image: Unified Signal’s Back Office OperationHolt says the partners receive great wholesale rates because Unified Signal aggregates the purchase of wireless capacity from its partners. How is customer service handled? Unified Signal hires out its customer acquisition and care needs to one of the largest national call centers. Its billing platform is integrated with its service delivery platform, which links to a carrier’s switches.In some instances, where the provisioning platform is not integrated with a service provider’s system, Unified Signal manually will activate a wireless service through a carrier’s web site. Unified Signal does not charge its partners to use the software, but in the future an implementation fee may be charged, depending on the complexity of the request, Holt says. Unified Signal will earn its keep by taking in 5 percent of its partners’ residual revenue, he adds.Signing CustomersIn August Unified Signal announced a deal with Impulse Marketing Group (IMG) to provide it an operating system that would let the Internet marketing firm offer its customers wireless services. Unified Signal also has partnered with Charlotte, N.C.-based Venture Group Enterprises, a master agent representing master agents, and Pronto Prepaid Wireless, based in the Houston area. Holt expects IMG to acquire about 500 wireless customers a day. IMG, which offers consumers financial and credit services, reports about 8 million unique web hits each month. “Unified Signal is making it possible for us to instantly jump into the communications market without having to install infrastructure or negotiate with carriers,” said Phillip Huston, vice president of business development for IMG, in a news release. “We will be able to capitalize on our huge Internet presence without having to become communications experts. We can then spend our resources on what we do best — marketing and selling.” Huston, a former sales channel manager at US West Wireless, says IMG hopes to sign several hundred thousand customers during the next two years. He adds the company will have the means to design wireless packages targeting its specific demographic group — people with less-than-perfect credit.Supporting VNOs With the operating platform in hand, companies like IMG can morph into what is known as a virtual network operator (VNO), a reseller of transport services capable of creating its own communications package and layering on new services outside of a carrier’s traditional offer. The model, relatively new to the U.S. market, stands a chance when the VNO carries a strong brand name and owns a large customer base, says Adam Guy, senior analyst of wireless research at the Washington D.C.-based Strategis Group.Any brand with widespread access to customers has an opportunity to become a quasi-service provider, says Holt, who claims a VNO can earn four to 10 times more than an agent.
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