On the Hot Seat with SouthernLinc Wireless CEO Bob Dawson

In this era of consolidation, the number of successful small regional operators is dwindling.  SouthernLinc Wireless has always had a unique proposition. The regional operator, which is a subsidiary of Southern Company, uses iDEN technology to provide wireless service to its customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.  Sue  Marek, editor-in-chief of FierceWireless, recently talked with Bob Dawson, CEO of SouthernLinc Wireless about the future of iDEN and the value of push-to-talk.

FierceWireless:  With Sprint migrating away from iDEN and onto the QChat platform and Motorola planning to separate its handset unit from the infrastructure division, are you concerned about the future of iDEN?

Dawson:  I think there is a general concern about how many people are going to be buying [iDEN].  All indications I have is that iDEN is in good shape.  It could be better if that other carrier wasn't going to another product.  But I believe iDEN has life in it. It's the best push-to-talk product out there.  

Everything I have heard from Motorola is that they are still working on iDEN. We are currently on it. We have deployed the highly available DAP [dispatch application processor] and real-time mirrored backup. It's just one box--a smaller box but more powerful.  

FierceWireless:  Do you think push to talk is still a valuable application?

Dawson: It's still very valuable. Clearly people in various companies are making economic decisions and will get a better deal. Real workers still want PTT but they are not always in a decision-making process. Our biggest problem is the economy is in a downturn. There is a perception that companies are cutting back on work force. The economy and more competition are our biggest problems, not whether or not the technology is needed.

FierceWireless:  Where is the competition coming from?

Dawson: There's more competition from larger carriers building in areas where we are.  But we are competing with cellular, not push to talk.  People that tried alternative push-to-talk offerings have abandoned them.

FierceWireless:  Are you able to get enough compelling iDEN handsets?

Dawson:  Yes, we are getting them.  We have seen the Motorola roadmap for handsets up until 2009 and there are some good looking phones with smaller features.  I'm not worried about handset roadmap.  In late 2006 and 2007 that was problem but it isn't any more.

FierceWireless: Sprint Nextel says that one of the benefits of migrating from iDEN to QChat is the ability to do push-to-x.  What do you think of push-to-x?

Dawson:  Push-to-x, we have been talking about that for iDEN for awhile. In fact, we built our whole ad campaign around push-to-succeed.  We've been looking at applications talked about for push-to-x. Sometimes it's confusing.  What is push-to-x?  Yeah, it's neat. But do people want it? How much will it cost?

Most of our customers are looking to talk. They want to get someone fast. If you can push to do some other thing, there is a market for it. But there's still the question of how much will it cost?   

I don't see any one thing that can replace iDEN for two-way radio. This is a highly reliable network. And it seems to do the best in really bad weather. I don't think we'll find a replacement for it.  I told our board that we will be doing this to 2017. Our coverage isn't prefect but no carrier can do what we do.

FierceWireless: What is your biggest challenge today?

Dawson:  The economy. People are quitting services. Customers that have several radios will turn off a few because of layoffs. And with the penetration rates that we have in the wireless industry, it's a matter of  'I'll take your customers while you take mine.' And the rate plans are designed to do that.

Churn is still low, which is good. It's just gross sales that are missing now. We are putting things in place to lift that with incentives and rate plans.   

Some days it's hard. I'd like to have advertising budget and a national footprint. That's why we push so hard on PTT roaming and data roaming.  You can look at regional as negative or positive. When customers want to talk, they get local people that know the issues. People that will take care of them because they live and work here.