How the Wireless Frontier Will Be Won

An experienced venture capitalist describes his view of the wireless future, and says that the CFO stuff is much more important than the CTO stuff, even for WISPs.
We heard Francis McInerney, co-author of Futurewealth and venture capitalist with North River Ventures, speak at the Stupidnet conference, where we also picked up a copy of the book. A few months later, having read the book, we called him to see what he might predict for the future of wireline and wireless telecommunications.

Here's what he had to say about wireless.

Whereas in the wireline telecoms industry, McInerney feels nobody ''gets it,'' he feels that one company is doing wireless right: Verizon Wireless (and it's not just the really good TV ads).

The key reason is a very basic one. ''Cellular companies don't own cell towers,'' McInerney notes.

On the other hand, the companies that do own towers, like American Tower, are laden with debt, much like the RBOCs they resemble. But McInerney expects their fortunes to improve in the long run.

A Wireless Boom

He expects demand to take off. ''I used to say that every home's a TV station, and when I did I was hauled across the carpet. It could be true today, but there are no uplinks.''

When demand takes off again, the wireless companies will be better situated to take advantage of the new boom. In the book, the authors write, ''digging ditches still costs more than ever, placing wired companies at a disadvantage.''

At the moment, McInerney believes that WiMax could trigger the demand surge, if it's done right. ''If WiMax allows a distributed antenna technology, you will see street lamps backhauled to every cell tower.''

At that point, the local WISP, supplying access from every street lamp, suddenly becomes the key connectivity player. ''It's complete telco bypass. Existing incumbents might not exist at all in the future. If the finances were available, it could begin in 24 months. There are plans in some places (cities, not nations) to make it happen in 12 months.''

Once it starts, there's no stopping it, he says. ''One the conversion starts, and the technology and business plan are proven, you get a land rush.''

The key concept here is what McInerney calls the ''Moore Curve.'' Moore's Law is a prescient observation by Gordon Moore, Intel co-founder, who, in 1965, said that CPU capacity would double every year. More recently, it has doubled every 18 months, but the principle holds true.

McInerney says that the effect of Moore's Law is that it forces companies and even entire industries to innovate. Those that don't get left in the dust, like K-mart trying to catch up with Wal-Mart, or Compaq trying to compete with Dell.

It's the customers, not the technology.

WISPs will not succeed because of their understanding of the technology, McInerney suggests, but because they understand their customers. Many of the companies we admire for their engineering skills, like HP, will fall to companies that are better at sales, like Dell.

At ISP-Planet we have looked down on Cisco as a buyer of technology instead of an inventor. McInerney tells us we're wrong to do so. ''It takes Cisco eight days to turn a sale into cash. At the time of the telecoms crisis, it took 39 days. John Chambers is brilliant. Everybody knew he was a great leader during growth times, but telecoms now is in a no-growth phase. He's really tightened up on operations. You can only get down to eight days if the organization is tuned so that the responsiveness is almost immediate.''

He says Cisco's competition (with the exception of Juniper) takes far longer to turn a sale into cash, citing a few numbers: Nortel takes 69 days, Ericsson 92 days, Alcatel 86 days. ''What [these numbers say] is that if you want to know how Cisco is beating you, it's because they manage inventory, payables, and receivables better than you.''

McInerney grades the carriers in the same way. ''I grade them ABCDEF on this metric. The only one that's a crack carrier is Verizon Wireless.''

But can Cisco keep buying, we ask.

''Yes. There are two schools of acquisitions. There's the Chemical Bank schoolbuy a company every 18 months or two years, and consolidate to gain market share. But Cisco's not acquiring for market share. It's acquiring expertise it doesn't have, almost always in a specific product area.''

McInerney argues that as long as the marketing machine works, acquisitions are safe. ''Assuming that two parts work well, the CFO part and sales and marketing, acquiring technology is relatively risk free.''

Oddly enough, that means that wireless equipment vendors that are doing sales and marketing right will acquire those that are stronger in engineering. Look at the market, and you'll see that this has been happening for some time, as when Floware bought BreezeCom and called the combined entity Alvarion.

This article was first published on ISP-Planet.com. To read the full article, click here.






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