Mobile Alliances Unite

The tie-up between Europe's FreeMove Alliance and Asia's Bridge Mobile Alliance makes international roaming on a global scale easier and cheaper for mobile users.

The move creates a global roaming giant that will be pitted against the likes of Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) and BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) in the managed mobility market for multinational companies. But as these operators and others improve their own managed mobility services, the global alliances days will be numbered.

Together, the FreeMove and Bridge Mobile alliances will cover 38 countries and about 400 million customers. (See Mobile Alliances Join Forces.)

FreeMove comprises European operators Orange SA (London/Paris: OGE), Telecom Italia Mobile SpA (Milan: TIM), T-Mobile International AG , and Telia Company .

The Bridge Mobile Alliance, which is run by the joint venture company Bridge Mobile Pte. Ltd. , has 10 operator members including Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), Maxis Communications Bhd. , Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel) (OTC: SGTJY), SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), and PT Telekomunikasi Selular (Telkomsel) .

Since it launched in November 2004, the Bridge Mobile Alliance has mainly focused on discounted tariffs for customers roaming in member operators' footprints.

But FreeMove goes further than cheaper roaming and provides managed mobility services such as account management, a managed BlackBerry service, and consistent roaming tariffs in member footprints. The agreement with Bridge Mobile will take these services into markets in the Asia/Pacific region.

FreeMove's services come close to multinational companies' demands for a single bill and consistent voice and data tariffs across multiple countries. As Forrester Research Inc. estimates that European companies spend 32 percent of network and telecom budgets on mobile services, cost and complexity reduction are key concerns. (See Going Mobile? Get Help )

Multinational companies have long complained about having to negotiate and manage contracts for mobile services with one or two operators in every country in which they operate.

"Enterprises want to reduce complexity and work with less suppliers," says Ed Vonk, chief executive of the European VPN User Association (EVUA) . "They want to reduce management costs and reduce the number of interfaces and technologies used."

FreeMove is just starting to fill that gap with 18 customers since it launched in 2003. But its time is limited because managed mobility services are maturing.

Alliances typically have a lifespan of three to five years, according to Brownlee Thomas, principal analyst at Forrester.

"[FreeMove] will have to either spinoff and go public or be acquired by one the co-owners like Orange," says Thomas.

Other global service providers are not far behind. BT, which has no mobile operations, can offer managed mobility services in more than 120 countries. The operator recently won a five-year managed services contract with Royal Philips Electronics NV (NYSE: PHG; Amsterdam: PHI) that includes mobile services across 40 countries and managing 22,000 handsets. (See BT Wins Philips Deal.)

Despite its 17-country presence in Western and Eastern Europe and having had a multinational customers business unit since 2005, Vodafone is still relatively new at delivering international services, according to the EVUA. Vodafone says it can offer consistent service in a "master service agreement" across nine countries in Europe, but could not name customers.

"Vodafone can do this if they can control their local organizations," says Vonk. "Its international sales organization is solid... but the money is still in the local organizations."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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