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Rail crash? You wait until they try to auction the 4G mobile phone spectrum

October 4, 2012

Business groups have launched  a scathing attack on the Government over the 4G spectrum auction and say it has revealed serious problems at the heart of public sector procurement. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, expressed a typical view: “It is shocking that such a crucially important process has gone so seriously wrong. Businesses need a stable, reliable telecoms network and certainty in the provision of key infrastructure.” “Procurement mistakes increase risks for companies, threaten jobs and harm Britain’s reputation as a destination for inward investment,” added Adam Marshall, policy director of the British Chambers of Commerce.

Just joking. I’m sure Messrs Walker and Marshall will forgive me for quoting them out of context this once; after all, I’m investing them with seer-like prescience. Their cited words are real, but in fact relate to the very clear and present danger of the West Coast Main Line rail fiasco. The fallout from that will be a moon-cast shadow compared to what will happen if HMG manages to screw up the mobile phone spectrum in the same way it has screwed up our railway network.

As it happens, there has been some relatively good news on the 4G front recently. Maria Miller, the obscure former Grey advertising and PR executive recently catapulted to culture, media and sports secretary, has made a brisk start to her tenure by bringing forward the inexplicably delayed auction date of 4G spectrum to January and cutting through the legal wrangling among telecoms carriers which has deadlocked the introduction of the new, much faster, mobile phone standard to the UK.

But will her timely action be enough to avert a looming disaster? First, a little background. 4G is not some minor incremental improvement on the current standard, 3G. It can offer speeds of up to ten times that of the average current home broadband service. Data-hungry yoof, but more importantly business people and commuters, will love it. Miller herself observes that its introduction is “a key part of economic growth strategy” and will “boost the UK’s economy by around £2-3bn” (growth at last – the stuff that George Osborne’s political dreams are made of). America’s already got it, Apple’s got it, Germany’s got it, Korea’s got it. For God’s sake, Estonia’s got it. Britain, which prides itself on being at the heart of the digital revolution, has not. Why not? Because of years of government dithering over the auction structure. Gordon Brown made a bit of an idiot of himself by appearing to hand out the lucrative 3G spectrum to the telecoms carriers for a song. Successive administrations since have been determined not to make the same mistake twice, but seem uncertain how to prevent it.

Now events have caught up with them. The situation is complex, but distils down to a simple reality. Apple has launched its latest ‘must-have’ iPhone with a 4G capability that no one in the UK will be able to take advantage of in the near future. Well, almost no one. The exception: those who use EE, as of October 30th. Er, let me qualify that. No, not all users of Orange and T-Mobile, the brands which have had all their resources pooled into the Everything Everywhere receptacle (or EE, as it is now known – what a whoopee cushion of a brand name). EE itself has the exclusive iPhone 5 franchise, and only new subscribers, not old customers, will benefit from the 4G offering. Everyone else – that is, the vast majority of UK mobile phone users – will have to wait at least 8 months to subscribe.

It may well be objected that what gives the EE brand a timely ‘digital’ lift is actually brand suicide for the company’s premier and better known brand, Orange. But that’s one for UK chief executive Olaf Swantee and his strategy team to worry about. In the meantime, they can congratulate themselves on having – unlike their competitors – farmed existing spectrum to make space for the 4G platform. A merry Christmas is assured, thanks to the exclusivity of their iPhone 5 4G contract.

Once EE’s rivals, O2, Vodafone and Three, realised what Swantee was up to, cries of  “Unfair” and “Unlevel Playing Field” were heard to rend the air. EE had played the ant in Aesop’s fable, and harvested its existing resources wisely, but the grasshoppers were beside themselves with rage that they would have to wait another six months to grab their share of the new spectrum via a dilatory government auction – and then some before the service could actually be implemented. What’s more, they were prepared to act decisively: they threatened to blunt EE’s leading edge with legal action. That might have been explicable in terms of competitive advantage and buying extra time to build the necessary 4G infrastructure. But as a prelude to launching the 4G standard in the UK, it would have created a public relations disaster. How do you explain to an iPhone-crazy public that access to much higher broadband speeds is being blocked by red-tape, selfish industry interest and legal chicanery?

Miller has therefore done well to defuse the legal wrangling by agreeing to bring forward the spectrum auction date 6 months to the end of January. But implementation of the 4G dream is still a long, long, way away for most of us punters – we’re talking at least the latter end of next year. In the meantime, all sorts of teething problems will need to be sorted out: poor signal distribution, patchy network coverage, a quite possibly incompetent auction process that leads to further legal action and, let’s not forget, potentially incompatible 4G phones.

“Wrong spectrum”. We’re going to be hearing a lot of that in the next 12 months, while the phone companies sort themselves out. If my mobile phone contract were coming up for renewal (which it is not), I would be very tempted to let it ride until at least the beginning of 2014 …

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“Silly” remark by Everything Everywhere chief lets slip truth about T-Mobile brand

October 26, 2011

Dear Mr Swantee

How do these female Telegraph journalists do it? Trap you into saying things you didn’t really mean to say, that is? Not many months ago, Mr Cable was silly enough to tell two such hackettes that Mr Murdoch’s empire was thoroughly evil and that he was going to put a stop to it, just when he was supposed to be impartially adjudicating the self-same Mr Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB.

Now you, too, have been very silly. Or, to be more precise, you have been caught rubbishing Everything Everywhere, the brand name of the company where you are chief executive.

Here are the very words you used, as reported by the delightful Katherine Rushton:

“Everything Everywhere is not a brand, it’s a silly name with a stopping effect”, he said, although he maintained it was useful for stores which house the two mobile brands.”

Now I know what you’re going to say; in fact what you have said: just like poor old Vince, you were quoted out of context. His context was entrapment; yours we’re going to work on a bit – just in case there’s any misunderstanding.

The first thing I’d like to make clear is that we are all right behind you. Not only do we admire the candour of someone in so senior and responsible a position voicing what we have all long since judged to be a self-evident truth (just, as it happens, we did with Mr Cable). We are also quite prepared to accept that journalists, with their obsession for compression, tend to miss the bigger picture.

I expect, when you were describing your corporate brand as “silly”, what you were really doing was employing a bit of time-honoured rhetorical licence: using the part as shorthand for the whole. It’s not Everything Everywhere the brand that is “silly” with “a stopping effect”, but the brand strategy behind it. That, surely, is the bigger picture that got left out of the context.

Right from the beginning, that brand strategy has been misconceived, hasn’t it?

I mean, the initial idea was all right as far as it went: putting together 2 failing UK mobile telecoms brands in one brand-new holding company and, overnight, transforming yourself into UK leader by customers, ahead of those snake-oil people at O2. What a clever sleight of hand, and one that avoided Orange and T-Mobile experiencing serious difficulty with the competition authorities into the bargain.

The trouble is, your predecessor Tom Alexander wasn’t empowered by his twin masters, France Télécom and Deutsche Telekom, to take the idea any further – and you were left to clear up the mess that resulted. 50:50 ventures never work, do they? Still, you’ve done what you can, within the agreed terms. You’ve swept away all those unnecessary backroom boys and girls, stripped out excess infrastructure, rationalised the shops, brushed up the margins, cleansed the boardroom of useless, nay-saying, former T-Mobile executives and ploughed on with a leaner, meaner Orange team. Yes, Sirree, having worked at HP before you joined France Télécom, you know just about everything there is to know about consolidating tired, low-growth companies.

But one thing they haven’t let you do is to slay the elephant in the room. Yes, I know what you said when you took over earlier this year:

“The T-Mobile customers want a flexible payment and usage system. The Orange customers want a predictable amount paid every month. There is a clear difference.”

But the justification for that difference is becoming less and less apparent, isn’t it? Look at your latest, Q3, figures: pre-paid, plummeting; contracts up. T-Mobile’s days as a UK brand are surely numbered.

Truth to tell, Orange is and always has been much the stronger brand; better serviced too. Maybe, if there hadn’t been all that fudging at the beginning by your corporate masters, then the figures would have been a lot more convincing than they are today. And your brand hierarchy a lot more coherent. Without T-Mobile to worry about, poor old Tom would never have had a nervous breakdown trying to justify the vacuous sticking-plaster of Everything Everywhere – as the best of all branding in the best of possible worlds, when it patently wasn’t.

No wonder you let slip your frustration with a “silly”, unguarded remark.


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