Regional carrier stays the course with diehardpush-to-talk fans.
At a time when big industry players are laying out their strategies for adopting LTE, SouthernLINC Wireless is sticking to its iDEN guns, thank you very much.
In fact, CEO Bob Dawson says he expects iDEN to last well into 2017 and possibly 2018. “I think iDEN has legs for a long time, where ‘long’ is undefined,” he says.
The fact that primary handset vendor Motorola had designs at one point to sell off its handset division doesn’t deter Dawson. The side of Motorola with which he deals – the iDEN house – always has been focused on running a fairly lean shop, and he doesn’t see the relationship changing in the foreseeable future. On the handset side, Dawson says the company is excited about the road map, which includes a sleek, almost RAZR-like model.
“Is something going to change in the future? Maybe, but I don’t see – and we keep looking for and trying to find – if there is anybody spending money to build a new, better two-way radio system,” he says. If you ask Dawson about thepush-to-talk (PTT) services that other carriers offer, he says they work on a limited basis, but they’re not as good as iDEN, which was built to be a radiofirst and a cellular phone second. Competing nationwide services use PTT over cellular and lose a lot of the functionality and robustness that iDEN offers, he says.
PTT ALL THE WAY
The segment that SouthernLINC Wireless goes after is that very niche market that uses PTT and understands the speed and productivity they get out of it, whether in GroupTALK mode or speaking one to one. Surely, some parts of any organization probably have a need for broadband wireless, Dawson concedes, but SouthernLINC Wireless has no plans to offer mobile TV, for example, to power line workers perched on poles. (Although he says they might get those services somewhere else.)
Owned by the Southern Company, an Atlanta-based electric company serving the southeastern United States, SouthernLINC Wireless isn’t your typical wireless service provider. It was formed to keep power company employees connected at a time when the electric utility had multiple radio systems that worked in a limited geography. “We built this because we can have a 128,000-square-mile area covered under one switch,” Dawson says, so the crews from four different electric companies could move around within their own operating company or go from one to another and still have all the features and functions.
Of course, the company has since evolved beyond electrical utilities to become a solution for public safety, construction and other field workers. Now, less than 10 percent of its subscriber base consists of the electric companies. SouthernLINC Wireless has close to a quarter of a million wireless customers.
That it plans to stick with iDEN, a technology it picked after being founded in 1996, doesn’t mean SouthernLINC Wireless is a slouch when it comes to technology or new services. The company launched location-based services (LBS) back in 1999 – long before it became a part of many companies’ social networking strategies – and introduced the BlackBerry 7200i in November 2006, with another BlackBerry on the way.
Dawson himself is active as a member of the board of CTIA, which some of his counterparts describe as an organization designed for the biggest service providers, but Dawson subscribes to the “you-gotta-be-present-to-win” philosophy. “Some days we win, some days we don’t,” he says.
The wins include an FCC mandate for PTT roaming, although the company has yet to persuade the rival Nextel arm of Sprint Nextel to go along with that. Roaming is especially important when power crews are sent out to turn the lights back on. SouthernLINC Wireless does offer the capability for radio-to-radio coverage off the network, but Dawson says it would be even better if the Nextel system were available.
Still in flux is a data roaming mandate, of which SouthernLINC Wireless is a proponent, and the definition of a “just and reasonable” rule to avoid the delays so often tied to that particular phrase. “The FCC did not define that, even though we’ve given them some great advice,” he quips. “Of course, we were biased on that.”
Over the next several months, SouthernLINC Wireless plans to roll out a new phone each month. Its portfolio includes the familiar iDEN rugged portables that meet military specifications as well as lighter-weight handsets with features such as Internet browser, Java and Bluetooth.
Of course, the economy has hit SouthernLINC Wireless customers, including those in the construction business, but it’s not as if businesses are shutting off all their phones. A company that has 50 or 100 phones might to turn off some of them as layoffs occur, but not all of them.
On the upside, more vendors that used to cater to the largest operators are now interested in talking to the smaller carriers, and they have been for some time, Dawson says, so features and functions that were hard to get in the past are probably easier to get today. SouthernLINC Wireless has not had the same type of problems that smaller CDMA players have experienced in getting the latest and greatest devices for their networks. The company has worked for some time now with international players to get volumes up.
So while the industry discusses LTE and related 4G upgrades, SouthernLINC Wireless remains committed to the iDEN family. Dawson says he’s seen instances where companies have moved away from the technology, only to find the workers in the field saying they want their radios back. In an era where productivity is king, the operator just might be in the right place at the right time.