Wireless metro service providers: back from the dead

About 13 years ago, we at Battery Ventures invested in a company called General Wireless, a company with no assets, no customers and one tough CEO, Roger Lindquist.

About 13 years ago, we at Battery Ventures invested in a company called General Wireless, a company with no assets, no customers and one tough CEO, Roger Lindquist.

Lindquist’s idea: put in a bid for the coming wireless Personal Communication Services (PCS) licenses, then raise the money through a company like Bear Stearns, which was funding the telecom competitive local exchange carrier like one giant ATM machine. Lo and behold, General Wireless won 14 of these licenses for $1.06 billion -- then fell into bankruptcy.

General Wireless was not alone. There were more than 600 telecom bankruptcies since the bubble burst, including some previous high fliers such as Windstar and 360 Networks. That should be the end of the story, right?

Wrong. Although the FCC thought it could get its licenses back, the courts thought otherwise. And today, General Wireless, now renamed Metro PCS, is worth in excess of $6 billion, and its stock has leaped 40% since its April IPO.

How is this possible? What has changed since the telecom industry was a basket case five years ago?

In some cases, the market came back to Metro PCS; instead of subsidizing expensive phones, Metro PCS uses flat-rate billing, offering plans for unlimited local calling and unlimited long-distance calling for about $50 per month.

It also sells downloadable, cool content for prices that range as high as $13 a month. This straightforward service seems to have found a home, even as wireless is becoming a mature industry.

The wireless-subscriber growth rate has leveled off. The biggies are cannibalizing each other — a zero-sum game — or trying to convince American consumers that they really do need those 3G music, video and game services.

The wireless industry always has lagged the wired world, but increasingly not by much. When the telecom bubble burst, about $2 trillion dollars in market capitalization went up in smoke, but the seeds of rejuvenation were evident.

Because there was all that infrastructure — dark fiber — in place, deals were cut and the cost of broadband fell with a thud. And because it was so inexpensive, new applications suddenly became viable, such as video, YouTube, social networking and free Internet phoning.

Some 50% of American adults have access to broadband at home or at work, all because of the glut of capital that literally went into the ground -- and that now will morph into wireless.

Companies like Verizon are attacking this on several levels by building new services or encouraging others. Want to access all of your photos from your PC? Sure. Want to create your own video channel? Be my guest. And it’s a short jump from having the world at your fingertips at home to wanting the same on your cell phone.

All this has been wonderful for the Ciscos and the Junipers of the world, but the trickle-down effect has worked for everyone. A video takes 1,000 times as much bandwidth as a sound file, but maybe you want to send high-definition, which takes seven times the bandwidth of a normal video, or the same as 7,000 phone calls.

Eric Schmidt has been saying the next opportunity for Google is “mobile, mobile, mobile." That spells nothing but opportunity for the wireless industry in general and for the Phoenix-like companies, such as Metro PCS.

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