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3G/HSPA

Carrier Group Talks Tough(er)

The GSM Association (GSMA) has a new structure, new commitments, and plans to kick ass on behalf of its members, according to chairman Craig Ehrlich [ed. note: I bet he says that to all the carriers].

The association recently introduced a 23-person board, comprising CEOs from the world's 12 largest operators, another nine big cheeses voted on by the membership, and two GSMA staff representatives (see GSMA Unveils New Structure and GSM Body Gets Makeover). This is the first time that such a high-powered collective has ever been assembled at the GSMA. Previously, carriers used to send plain ol' staff members to participate in the organization's strategy sessions, and hardly ever anyone at CEO level.

Ehrlich says that having top-level decision makers from the GSM operator community on the GSMA board will benefit all the operators. "Now that we've got a stronger collective and more cohesive voice, we're certainly going to be more proactive in explaining our needs to vendors and communicating our position better."

Proactive? That sounds like fun for the system suppliers. Ehrlich, diplomatically, says it will make life easier for the vendors, as they will have a clearer idea of what it is the operators need. "And by vendors, we mean hardware and software suppliers and the content and applications developers that are becoming more important to the whole industry."

Things will happen more quickly too, he adds. "It used to take two to three years to get things sorted, but that's too long. We need to fix problems within six months, and that'll be achievable now this is a top-down organization."

Ehrlich also believes the GSMA will play a greater role in standards creation in the near future. "There has been a proliferation of standards bodies in this industry, but we believe there will be fewer of these in the future, with some consolidating and coming under the auspices of the GSM Association," says the chairman, who is an executive board member at Hong Kong mobile operator Sunday Communications Ltd.

The first board meeting took place during the 3GSM Congress event in Cannes recently, with GPRS roaming and multimedia messaging interoperability identified as two key "issues that need to get sorted. And we are going to promote wideband CDMA [WCDMA]. This industry has become too bearish about 3G. More than 30 of our members are going to launch 3G WCDMA networks this year. That's a very positive story."

Indeed, but only if it happens and if those operators attract subscribers. The WCDMA story has not been a very positive one to date (see 3 Keeps Europe Waiting and J-Phone's Limited Appeal).

And while the GSMA struts its stuff and paints a positive picture of its new format and CEO involvement, not all of its members are totally "on message." With only half his tongue in his cheek, Neil Montefiore, CEO of MobileOne (Asia) Pte Ltd., an operator in Singapore that recently went public (see M1 Bucks IPO Trend), says he has "reservations about the democratic process," surrounding the appointment of the new GSMA board. The fact that he's not on the board, and one of his rivals (SingTel) is, could be a source of annoyance.

He adds, though, that the structure is at least better than it was, and he has hopes that more senior-level involvement will see the association punch its weight.

Montefiore says there is no shortage of issues to be addressed, not least some major problems surrounding the billing of services. All operators, he says, "need to spend some money on their billing systems. Our customers should be able to access and buy content from anywhere in the world, and to do that we need to be able to bill each other. As things stand, some operators can't even bill each other for SMS traffic running between them."

The opinion that billing systems might be a bottleneck in the data service chain is one echoed by John Hoffman, CEO of software vendor Roamware Inc. and senior consulting director of technology evolution at the GSMA. "There's a lot that operators can do with data services right now, but they just couldn't bill for them. Why do you think so many picture messaging services are free for the first few months? That's because the billing element just isn't ready. It's a big problem."

It's a problem being tackled by a number of specialist vendors Unstrung came across while in Cannes, such as Intec Systems Inc. and Openet Telecom Inc. -- and an issue being addressed in two upcoming Unstrung Webinars on March 12 and 26 (click here for more details).

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung

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