Down, But Not Out
By Carlo Longino, Fri Jan 31 12:54:00 GMT 2003

The US Supreme Court weighs in on spectrum, inter-carrier MMS (finally!), and more...


The US mobile market digested a major development this week when the country's Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecom industry, had overstepped its authority and US bankruptcy law by seizing back 90 wireless licenses covering major markets across the county from NextWave Telecom after the company failed to make payments on the USD4.7 billion tab it had run up at the FCC's spectrum bar in 1996.

Surprisingly, this decision made everybody, including the FCC, happy. NextWave says they can now go on and build their nationwide network (guys, if you can get investors to give a bankrupt company the billions needed to build a national wireless network from scratch, you can find better work than running a mobile operator), the FCC says its glad the 5-year drama is over and the issue is settled, and the nation's existing wireless carriers are salivating over this spectrum, for which they'd bid USD16 billion for in 2001, being available at bargain-basement prices.

From the "Nice to See You, What Took So Long?" file, T-mobile, O2, and Orange's UK networks inked inter-carrier MMS deals. Sort of. O2 signed agreements with the other two carriers, and T-mobile and Orange are reportedly "close" to an agreement of their own. No word from Vodafone, who's still busy sending MMS pictures of its new hairstyle to David Beckham.

Wi-Fi made some noise this week, first with AT&T Wireless in the US announcing it would resell access to Wi-Fi provider Wayport's network, which has hotspots primarily in US airports and hotels. This is more interesting that it at first seems, because it puts AT&T Wireless in direct competition with it's parent company, plain ol' AT&T, which has invested in Wi-Fi network start-up Cometa.

BT, too, started a minor family feud when it announced new deals to expand its UK hotspot count to 400. Simple enough on its own, but a BT exec had to stoke the flames by saying Wi-Fi was faster and cheaper than 3G, not letting the fact that no UK carrier has announced their 3G pricing get in the way of a good unchallenged boast. mmO2, formerly part of the BT Group, was happy to shoot back, pointing out they're about to launch Wi-Fi services in Ireland for EUR10 per month for unlimited use, whereas BT's unlimited UK plan costs GBP85, or roughly EUR130.

T-mobile, however, is ready to reveal some of its 3G plans, saying it would roll out 3G service in 200 German towns and cities by the third quarter of this year, exceeding the German telecom regulator's requirement that license holders have networks covering 25% of the country's population.

In smaller news (literally), Siemens this week unveiled a line of "fashion phones" that are probably quite unlike any handset you've seen before. The company says it will release two lines of "Xelibri" (is that German?) phones, featuring very basic functionality, each year, and expects them to sell for between EUR200-400.

The future of the SonyEricsson joint venture also got resolved for a little while, anyway when its two parent companies announced they'd infuse EUR 300 million into the concern, which again struggled in the fourth quarter of 2002, losing about EUR 70 million, although handset shipments increased 42% from the previous quarter (though were only 4% higher than a year ago).

On a lighter note, news flung in from around the world proves people still haven't quite mastered when not to use their mobiles. First, in Japan, grocery delivery driver drowned after driving his car into a river while talking on the phone. Then in Qatar, where the government's Ministry of Mosques has ordered 1,000 mobile phone jammers that imams and muezzins can flip on to keep the faithful's phones from ringing during prayers and sermons. And finally in Denmark, where a member of parliament was busted by TV cameras playing a war video game on his PDA while his colleagues discussed whether the country would participate in any potential military action against Iraq. The MP, Trond Helleland, pointed out that he had "obviously turned off the sound." I'm sure his constituents appreciate his thoughtfulness.