05 December 2007

Sprint could spin off WiMAX division

This has been quite a month for the wireless industry. Between Verizon's recent announcements (see this and this) and the earlier news regarding Sprint and WiMax. In this article, Sprint interim CEO Saleh said:
... that Sprint was currently examining its plans for widespread WiMAX deployment in 2008 and deciding “if it’s the right course for us.” He then said that in the future, Sprint’s WiMAX division could take “multiple forms,” including one scenario where Sprint would “contribute our [WiMAX] asset to some kind of entity and find investors who are willing to fund the deployment of WiMAX.” Sprint would then buy services from that entity and resell them are on the market, he said.
I find the wholesale scenario most interesting (especially given my interest and work in secondary use and secondary markets for spectrum). This amounts to the creation of a wholesale WiMAX infrastructure from which Sprint would lease capacity for a potential retail operation. This is not unheard of in this industry. Note that Sprint is the carrier for MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) like Virgin Mobile. Also, many of the carriers have sold or outsourced their towers to companies such as Crown Castle and American Tower. So, I am wondering a couple of things as a result of this announcement:
  • Is the Sprint retail brand going to separate from its carriage services in its 2G and 3G (i.e., CDMA) operations as well? If they do, then Sprint (retail) will be just another MVNO on the Sprint (carrier) network. If they don't I wonder what spinning off WiMAX really buys them. This is roughly akin to the functional/structural separation that is being discussed (and in some cases implemented) in the wireline industry.
  • Is the Verizon annoucement a signal that the industry is in the process of restructuring itself into separate handset, retail and wholesale services components? If this is the case, it suggests that the economic and strategic benefit of integrated package delivery is coming to an end; that the transaction costs that have driven this integration have decreased significantly so that a new industry organization can become feasible.
It is clear that it could take a few years for this scenario to play out ... we have yet to see what AT&T has in mind in this regard, as well as the carriers in other countries that have a highly sophisiticated mobile industry.

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