Thursday, October 09, 2008

Where there's a will, there's a Willcom

To quote an old Southern adage, "I'm busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kickin' contest." However, this arrived in my inbox today, and I wanted to comment on it briefly because I think it's cool as well as illustrative of the gulf in thinking between some wireless players in Asia and Europe.

In case you've never heard of it, Willcom is a Japanese wireless operator (owned by Carlyle and Kyocera) using PHS technology (in contrast to PDC/UMTS/CDMA for the larger players). Given that it inherited a number of non-trivial competitive challenges from its previous incarnation as DDI Pocket, the company (in my experience) tends to think differently about its position in the market and how to exploit its strengths. (Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a handset maunfacturer as shareholder and development partner, which in itself is quite a unique situation relative to most cellular players.)

Perhaps the most significant difference with most other mobile operators I have observed is that Willcom has avoided the usually awkward shoehorning of a lot of extraneous content and services into the mobile experience. They concentrate on selling connectivity and voice (if you want it), and not much else, and three years ago they nailed the fact that their crown jewels were connectivity and the billing/authentication relationship, so they modularized it to free it from the handset and extend it to all sorts of devices. One identity bonded to a radio, on many devices, in many use scenarios, means more network utilization (Willcom has a huge number of cell sites because of the limited coverage of PHS), more revenues if the customer is on a metered plan, and presumably an increased resistance to churn because greater utility is being delivered to the customer.

Contrast this with my situation as an Orange customer - I have a voice subscription tied to a handset, with an extortionate data pricing plan for GPRS/EGDE use, as well as a 3G dongle with a 3GB cap. Besides appearing on the same bill, these services don't touch. I can't transfer unused data from my dongle account to my handset service, and I suspect that if I swapped SIM cards and started making calls from the dongle SIM I would get stung on call charges. I can't even use the dongle on another laptop unless it happens to have the drivers installed.

So, back to the news which started this rant. I don't want to translate the entire article, but the main point is that Willcom has jointly developed (with Buffalo and Sanyo Electric) a portable WiFi access point which again incorporates the W-SIM. WiFi on the fly for your non-PHS compatible devices (and those of your friends), but enabled by PHS backhaul (including on the subway lines) and a billable event which drives usage of the carrier's core assets. Not bad.

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