Our guest this past weekend on the GeekWire Podcast was mobile industry veteran Paul Griff, the CEO of wireless research company RootMetrics, who joined us to talk about the ins and outs of wireless coverage, AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA, and up-and-coming mobile technologies, including his company’s tests of Verizon’s LTE network.
If you missed the show, or just prefer text, continue reading for selected excerpts from his comments.
What RootMetrics does: Essentially what the company is about is democratizing the type of information that people need in order to make good, informed buying decisions. When you buy a smartphone these days, it’s a two-year contract that over the life of the contract is $2-$3,000. People want to do their homework. We’re the new source for them to do it.
We have really two ways we go about gathering data. One is work that we do with our own teams to go out into a market and profile carrier performance. We do that very scientifically, under very controlled circumstances, but we do it directly from off-the-shelf smartphones. We go into carrier stores, buy the state-of-the-art phones, pay for it like anybody else does, and then under very controlled, methodical circumstances, we measure the network. The other side of things, that gives us the breadth to complement that depth, is crowdsourcing. Today it’s on iPhone, we’re just a few days from launching our Android app. Consumers can not only test the network, and see how it’s working, where they are and when they are now, but they can look at all that aggregate data, which today consists of roughly 70 million data points, all over North America.
Would AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile USA actually improve wireless coverage? The potential is certainly there. There is a spectrum shortage beyond any question. It might not be prominent today, but at the growth rates for data usage on these networks, it’s inevitable. It’s a crash course right now. If you look back at the history of the industry, no matter how high the price has been that has been paid for spectrum, in hindsight it always looks like a bargain. And so I believe what AT&T is banking on is that this is a very efficient means of not only acquiring spectrum but of acquiring infrastructure to go with it, and of course there’s a pretty nice customer base and revenue base that they’re acquiring, as well.
Ultimately how it will impact the end user and whether it will benefit them will have a lot more to do with execution that it has to do with acquisition. There’s an immense amount of work to be done to integrate these networks, and to do something with them that improves the effect for the end user.
Other outcomes from the deal? In all likelihood, the way this plays out is that the spectrum that T-Mobile’s current customers are on ends up being used as part of AT&T’s build-out of their next-generation network. There’s a lot of talk about 4G these days, and it’s kind of a confusing topic for people that are outside the industry, because 4G means so many things, and some of them can be really, really confusing. But ultimately I would expect that this all-new network will be using the spectrum from both companies and that T-Mobile customers — legacy T-Mobile customers — are going to have to end up getting new phones at some point in the future. Frankly, pretty distant future, though.
What can we expect from 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks? You can expect a lot, really. The first LTE network is now live in Seattle. Verizon went live a few months ago, but until last week it was only available for data cards. You were seeing some spectacular speeds on data cards, because first of all it is very, very high speed, very low latency, and there are very few people on the network.
Last week, Verizon launched their first LTE handset, the HTC Thunderbolt, and the day after it launched, we did our first 4G test out in the wild. We had done some things out in the past at events like CES. I gotta tell you guys, it was spectacular. Frankly, all of the networks, every one of them, compared to where they were a year ago or two years ago, the speeds are amazing. But with the Thunderbolt I was seeing speeds that are faster than my cable modem at home or the T1 in my office. We saw sustained averages of around 17 megabits per second around greater Puget Sound. Maybe even more amazingly, there was 100% reliability. (Study: PDF)
How RootMetrics walks the line of both selling data to and reporting on the wireless carriers: Very, very carefully. In fact, it is such a daunting concept that one of the things we did early on was look for advisers that had navigated those waters. And actually, J.D. Power — there actually is a J.D. Power, he goes by Dave — and Dave Power is an observer to our board of directors, and his son Jamey, actually J.D. Power IV, is actually a member of our board. We look to them because they’ve done what we set out to do. They fundamentally changed the auto industry by reporting on quality. They reported on their customers while also selling that data back to the carriers. It is a very delicate walk.
To hear Griff’s comments on those and many other topics — plus our news roundup and the answer to an epic Name that Tech Tune contest — listen to the full audio of the show below.
Here’s the MP3 file for this week’s episode.Check back this weekend for our next episode, we’ve got another good one in the works.