My fourth day working for FierceWireless was the start of the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference (as it was then known) in San Francisco in early September 2008. I landed in a city I'd never been to before, tried to get my bearings and was slightly overwhelmed by the bewildering array of acronyms I encountered at the conference: GSM, CDMA, HSPA, EV-DO, WiMAX, LTE, OFDM, FCC, NTIA…the list goes on.
Thankfully, I know what all of those mean by now, and much has changed since then. One of the biggest changes, for me at least, is that I will be leaving the Fierce team after today, and this will be my last column.
I'm moving onto the next chapter of my career and life with humility and a deep appreciation for all that I have learned, and for all of the people whom I have come into contact with while writing for FierceWireless.
In one sense, when I think about how much in the wireless industry has changed since I started writing about it, at a time when I was most definitely a novice, I'm amazed. In September 2008 the iPhone 3G had been out for around two months and there was an almost infinitesimal fraction of the apps in the App Store compared to the amount available today. Android's success was a glint in Andy Rubin's eye. Nokia and Research In Motion (now BlackBerry) were industry titans. There were no commercial LTE networks. Symbian was still dominant in terms of market share. Palm was still a smartphone brand. Microsoft still relied on Windows Mobile. Alltel, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Motorola, Skype, Sony Ericsson, Virgin Mobile and dozens of others were all independent companies.
I feel honored and privileged to have been able to cover such a dynamic industry during a period of incredible upheaval and change, and as wireless technology has become part of the fabric of our lives -- not just in developed countries but in developing ones as well. There are few aspects of our day-to-day lives that are not somehow impacted by mobile technology.
I've primarily covered the wireless industry in the United States, which became the largest smartphone market before being eclipsed by China, and is still the market with the highest average data usage per customer. The U.S. led the way on large-scale LTE deployments, and the operating systems that were born here dominate the global wireless market. The opportunities ahead of us with the continued development of the Internet of Things, 5G networks, driverless cars, smart clothing and other innovations make me optimistic about the industry's future.
Yet the U.S. market has also consolidated dramatically in the last seven years, as the largest carriers have only gotten larger. The only significant Tier 2 carriers left are U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM), C Spire Wireless and Shenandoah Telecommunications. Obviously, wireless is a scale business and without it companies flounder and fail or get bought. There could have been even more consolidation. Recall that in 2011 AT&T tried and failed to buy T-Mobile USA, which was stopped largely through the efforts of former Sprint CEO Dan Hesse and his allies, and then Sprint and T-Mobile abandoned efforts last year to merge due to regulatory opposition. This consolidation has potentially dire consequences.
Yes, under John Legere T-Mobile has shaken up the industry with its "uncarrier" ways in recent years, but besides for sparking a shift away from two-year service contracts and toward equipment installment plans, how much in the industry has really changed? Customers can easily unlock their phones now, but carriers still charge Early Termination Fees for breaking contracts. The other three Tier 1 carriers still charge overage fees for data. And despite the proliferation of more efficient LTE networks and technologies like carrier aggregation, I think the cost per gigabyte is still too high at all of the carriers.
Despite T-Mobile's consumer-friendly offers, we must remember that carriers are corporations responsible to their shareholders above all others, and they're not charitable trusts. They're out to make as much money as they can, and will innovate only in so far as it will help their bottom lines. Notice that T-Mobile offered unlimited streaming video to its customers (for services that need to meet its technical requirements) the same day it raised prices on all of its plans, including hiking the price of unlimited data from $80 to $95 per month.
Additionally, despite the ways in which Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and to a lesser extent Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) have wrested control of the user experience away from the carriers and broken down the walled gardens of the mid-2000s, the carriers remain extremely powerful and are the ultimate gatekeepers. That's why I hope the FCC's net neutrality rules survive their latest challenge in court, and that the FCC enforces the rules effectively. Someone has to watch the powerful, and not just journalists.
Speaking of journalists, I have been privileged to work alongside incredibly talented, compassionate, smart and fun peers, not just at Fierce but at other publications as well, and I will deeply miss our camaraderie at trade shows from Las Vegas to Barcelona. I have learned an immense amount about the wireless and technology industries from them, including those who have been covering those industries since I was in high school or middle school (for those of you who don't know, I joined the Fierce team shortly after I turned 21, straight out of college and greener than an Irish blade of grass on the Incredible Hulk's arm).
I want to especially thank all of the colleagues I have worked with at Fierce for their guidance, advice, patience, humor and whimsy.
I would not be the writer and journalist I am today without the counsel of the ever-intrepid Mike Dano, who has taught me to always go hunting for the story that's out there, and who was brave enough in May to let me belay him while lead rock climbing in Colorado (it went fine -- and was so much fun!).
And I would not be the person I am today without the support and direction of Sue Marek, who has been the best kind of boss -- one who has always pushed me to deliver my best work, but who has taught me that there is so much more to life than work.
Finally, I will miss you, the readers of FierceWireless, a group of thoughtful, discerning and passionate people who are invested in this industry and its future. Thank you for reading my work and for your comments, praise and criticism. I have always strived to be a thorough and fair reporter about a very complex and vibrant industry, while also being able to deliver clear-eyed analysis and call it as I see it in my role as a commentator. And while I will be sad to no longer be in that role for you, I am confident you will be in great hands with Sue, Mike and whoever follows in my footsteps.
So long, for now, and maybe our paths will cross again somewhere down the road. Thanks for the journey. "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day."--Phil