A Perfect Wireless Storm is Ripening

“Is there any other industry in this country that seeks to presume so completely to give the customer what he does not want?”
~ FOX News founder Rupert Murdoch on the American media industry
CHICAGO – When über media tycoon Rupert Murdoch posed that rhetorical question a few years back, you’d have been hard pressed to question his wisdom. After all, the man was on top of his game.

Murdoch had just launched the FOX Television Network in the U.S. and was ready to begin broadcasting 150 digital channels into Europe through his British Sky Broadcasting satellite TV company. But that was pre-reality TV.

Ever since throwing up hits like “American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire,” I doubt anyone will argue that this country’s couch potatoes aren’t getting what they want these days. What if Murdoch’s question was asked again today? To find an answer, it might be helpful to revisit him and see where he’s placing his bets these days.

Oddly enough, his current preoccupation is with acquiring satellite TV provider DIRECTV, which is owned by GM’s Hughes Electronics. Aha! The business sector least likely to give customers what they want these days is the wireless industry.

What’s that you’re saying? DIRECTV isn’t in the wireless industry? They’re no more in the wireless industry than Internet and cable TV provider Comcast (which you’ve likely seen advertised all over Chicago lately as the Windy City’s “new” cable provider) is for having installed a Wi-Fi (“wireless fidelity”) network in my home.

Yeah, but I can get high-speed wireless Internet service through DIRECTV. Surely that makes it a “wireless” company. Not really, you say? Just because Comcast carries CNN doesn’t make it in the business of broadcasting news.

So what exactly is the wireless business? It seems like it’s whatever you want it to be. Welcome to the inaugural voyage of Unwiring Wireless, where we’re going to talk and think straight on the latest wireless happenings.

Admittedly, “wireless” is such a broad topic that it invariably winds up meaning different things to different people depending on their focus. I’ve always had a particular distaste for television commentators, financial analysts and even IT folks who just throw the “wireless” term around like a big piece of raw meat (as if to imply the term encompasses a single industry).

I’ve heard too many TV talking heads lump dissimilar technologies, services and companies together to create a picture that is at best confusing and at worst one that provides erroneous information to others who will use it to base real business decisions. Call me a sap but I feel for the people watching CNBC and buying into what the “analysts” say. (I’ve earned my battle scars and wish others no ill will.)

The intent of this column is not to give stock advice but to blow past the hype and pick apart the services, technologies and business models jockeying for wireless supremacy. We’ll get under the covers and “get real” (like Dr. Phil likes to say) and hopefully glimpse a realistic view of what’s going on in various wireless sectors.

Now is a particularly interesting time for wireless. A ton of activity is happening in the “first-mile” wireless broadband space. It’s easy to see why. A perfect storm is gathering. New, powerful and relatively cheap WISP and end-user equipment is currently coupled with a hospitable political climate where we even have some venture capitalists lobbying for national broadband subsidies geared to kick starting the economy.

Change is afoot. It’s going to be fun to identify the players and relay what is going on from our vantage point here in the Midwest.

Incidentally, the Midwest seems to be trailing the coasts badly when it comes to the emerging Wi-Fi and hot spot markets. Don’t fret. Last week, early east coast entrant Joltage called it quits. The race to a profitable business model has just begun. I’ll have much more on this subject in future ePrairie columns.

What about other wireless businesses? Sometimes I wonder if your basic cellular phone company executive has ever experienced the thrill of having to sort through 20 different airtime programs each month to be sure he’s not getting gypped by not going with a newer and better plan. Most customers don’t bother, I guess, so why should they?

Kudos to AT&T for recently reducing the number of airtime packages it offers. Also, what about newcomers like Virgin Mobile? They’ve gone from zero to hero with some 350,000 new subscribers in a few short months. Something tells me its MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) business model is working.

Something also tells me they are giving their “tween” and Gen-Y customers what they want (prepaid J.Lo ring tones, of course). Surely the cellular establishment and other “big-brand” companies are taking notes.

What about wireless in corporate America? What’s simmering with 802.11a, b, g and the rest of the alphabet soup? I’ll bet you one thing. More and more IT guys are making trips to their CEO’s house to set up a wireless network these days. I’m going to really feel for these guys when the Intel Centrino marketing machine hits full stride by the middle of the year.

As you can see, there is a lot to talk about. How about we make a deal? You keep me on my toes and I’ll promise never to presume.