On the Future of Mobile Networks

Republic Wireless

Prior to the release of the iPhone on Verizon (and now Sprint), the blogosphere regularly descended into a veritable cacophony of displeasure over the performance of AT&T's network. While these concerns have been somewhat alleviated with the loss of iPhone exclusivity, the concerns remain relevant, and with the rise of (supposed) "4G" speeds, it is likely that the same complaints will be resurrected in a (slightly) different form.

Simply put, the national network model for mobile phone coverage is flawed in the United States. Without dedication to specific areas, companies -- like the much maligned AT&T -- are forced into uneven and broken coverage for their customers. Some areas are blessed with great speeds, low contention rates, and few dropped calls, while others offer data at near stagnant speeds and voice quality on par with two tins on a string. Costs are high, and advances in technology have little effect on their pricing models. Sprint is the only large carrier (with the iPhone) still offering a true unlimited rate, but it's only a matter of time before that is put to bed.

The system is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed, overstretched, and unable to keep pace with advances in the industry.

The answer? Local, boutique-esque networks.

Post-2009, the consumer has begun to appreciate the value of customer service, and now places renewed focus on product quality. As I wrote with regard to the Nest Thermostat, innovation is beginning to take place in the unlikliest of places -- in well-entrenched business sectors. Who would've thought the designer of the paradigm-shifting iPod would build a thermostat? No one. So why can we not expect the same of a mobile network?

A few weeks ago, C Spire Wireless -- a small Mississippi-based network -- announced that it was to carry the iPhone 4S. Considering the spectacle of the Verizon release this year, C Spire's announcement came as somewhat of a shock to many analysts. This small, regional network now carries the coveted iPhone while T-Mobile is still left in the cold.

Today, Republic Wireless announced its $19 "unlimited everything" package. Using UMA technology -- allowing a phone to move between VOIP and regular mobile network -- Republic provides a cheap, accessible, and technologically forward-thinking approach to the mobile network question.

What do these two examples prove? Simply, they demonstrate the consumer desire for an alternative. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile are all hampered by their breadth, their lack of ability to adapt to changing markets, and they are haunted by negative press coverage. As these alternative providers begin to appear with a focus on technology, costs, and the consumer, it appears the mobile phone business may be next in line for disruption, and it's really about bloody time.

What is a phone number? It is an arbitrary number indicative of an antiquated system. Texts messages are charged separately from data? Text messages are data. Data throttling and limitations? Don't get me started.

As these new providers begin to trickle in, I suspect we are going to begin to see companies that do not make such meaningless distinctions, that treat their customers with respect (partially out of necessity), and that place importance on shaking the foundations of the old guards through the adoption of new, progressive technologies.

Forget MetroPCS and the like, I'm talking about what BankSimple proposes to do to the banking industry, but for the mobile industry.

C Spire getting the iPhone may serve as an early marker for manufacturers branching out, and Republic Wireless demonstrates the ability to disrupt pricing models, and traditional technology. It would be foolish to think that there are not more coming, and that this will not alter the way we look at phone coverage.

Faster, regional, forward-thinking, and respectful coverage, or bloated, ineffective, overpriced coverage? I know which one I'd choose.