In the nearly two decades that I've been writing about the wireless industry, I've witnessed some very high-profile business failures (Iridium and Metricom, to name a few). Many of these flameouts had a few things in common. First, they thought they could build a network from scratch and--despite fierce competition from existing players--attract enough customers to offset the billions in infrastructure costs they would incur.
Secondly, they thought they could beat the existing service providers at their own game by offering consumers a better alternative. Iridium's plan was to launch a constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites that would blanket the earth with coverage and provide global voice and data services to globe-trotting executives that needed global coverage. Metricom's plan was to offer wireless data service using small repeaters installed on light poles and compete with the wireline DSL and cable modem companies.
So you can imagine my skepticism when I first learned of private-equity firm Harbinger Capital Partners and its plans to launch a nationwide wholesale LTE network (dubbed LightSquared) that some estimate will cost between $6 billion and $10 billion to build. Like the examples above, LightSquared believes it can build out this costly network from scratch and attract wholesale customers, which will then resell mobile broadband services using the LightSquared network. And company executives believe LightSquared can attract enough wholesale customers (they have said they're talking to at least 30 possible wholesale clients) to justify the company's buildout expenses. And like the examples above, LightSquared also believes it can beat existing service providers (like Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ)) at their game by providing better coverage and better quality of service.
But LightSquared likely will be a bit late to the game--it plans to cover 100 million people by year-end 2012 as opposed to competitor Clearwire, which plans to cover 120 million people by year-end 2010.
Will LightSquared succeed? I spoke with Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben and I have to admit, he talks a good game. He knows the industry, he knows the technology and he understand the importance of building an ecosystem to support LightSquared's ambitious plans.
For more on LightSquared's plans (and the industry's reaction), check out my feature article here. I've talked to various players in the industry about this 4G upstart and I think you may find their responses interesting.
I remain skeptical--but also hopeful. I'd like to see a new upstart make it in the 4G space. But if history is any indication of the future, LightSquared has a tough road ahead. --Sue