Wednesday, August 1, 2007

No Wholesale? No Surprise

To almost nobody's surprise, the 700 MHz auction will not have a mandatory wholesale provision. We might argue that a robust "third" or "fourth" or "fifth" pipe would result. What is harder to argue is that any such pipe provider would be able to make the investments required, operate its network at a high level of quality and still return the required returns to investors.

Other wireless infrastructure initiatives highlight the problem. After reporting a $16.3 million second-quarter loss last week, EarthLink reiterated that it was reassessing its municipal wireless business. Revenue is the issue.

"Until we're confident that we can build new networks and get an acceptable return, we will delay any further new buildouts," CEO Rolla Huff said.

EarthLink has been one of the biggest builders of city wireless networks, with projects built or in the works in 13 municipalities around the U.S., according to its Web site.

The problem with wholesale access business models is simply that it is so difficult to earn an adequate return. In a competitive market, a provider needs both significant penetration and reasonable margin (40 percent is a common threshold). Wholesale makes that tough.

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