DAVE Wireless/Mobilicity - the Next Wave in Canadian Wireless Competition

The second shoe dropped today in terms of new entries for Canada's wireless market. I've been following this space for some time, and the winners of last year's AWS auction are starting to make moves to shake things up here. About six weeks ago, the most ambitious entry - Wind Mobile - was the first to launch. I've generally been skeptical of the chances for these new players, and as first movers go, I haven't been overwhelmed with Wind.

Enough said for now - but we can talk more about that later. Let's focus on today's news, which has a few angles of interest. The next entry making noise is DAVE Wireless. The acronym is awkward and misleading - Data and Audio Visual Enterprises - but guess what?

Breaking news - they've just done their branding launch, and I like the new name MUCH better. They're coming to market under the moniker Mobilicity, and the press release just hit the wires. A bit like Sex and the City - rolls off the tongue nicely and hints at adventure, and combines two words that define their value proposition - mobility and city. I also can't help but notice the subtle homage here that comes from their CEO's former role as head of Toronto Hydro Telecom, the telecom arm of our local electric utility.

While that news is very much here and now, let me rewind to earlier this morning, where I attended the first public address about their plans at the Toronto Board of Trade. That's what I'm trying to post about, but the re-name news just came out while writing this up.

So, bright and early at 8am, DAVE Wireless's CEO, Dave Dobbin addressed a very full house about their latest news. First off, the service hasn't launched yet - that's coming in the spring. This gives Wind a 4-5 month head start, but if DAVE really is as distinct as promised, it may not be much of a factor.

Dave's main message this morning was to set the stage for their launch by explaining why competition is a good thing for consumers, and how their service is going to be different. Just a quick aside - TELUS is one of the sponsors of this breakfast speaker series, and in my recent conversations with them, it hasn't been lost on them that their dollars are helping provide a stage for a new competitor to tell their story. Am sure Mr. Dobbin sent Mr. Entwistle a friendly text message to thank him.

Back to the presentation. I certainly like the opening comments, where he noted that the mere threat of competition has already benefitted consumers. That's very true, esp considering that the AWS auction seemed to be ages ago, and so far, only one new service has actually come to market. Despite that, prices are lower today, system access fees are going away, and Canada now has 6 3G networks. Well, if that isn't progress, I don't know what is. Nice way to start things off.

Moving on to the more pressing questions, things are a bit less clear cut. Dave focused on the three questions his company gets asked about the most - is there room for DAVE?, can you afford to build out a network to be competitive?, and how will DAVE compete?

On the first question, I have no issues. I've long felt the Canadian market is too small to support more than 3-4 wireless operators, but there's no doubt there are many ponds to fish in for customers. Sure, there's the greenfield opportunity (but I think it's overrated), and we'll get our share of wireless substitution up here. The bigger variables are the unhappy subscribers they can siphon off from the Big 3 as well as the prepaid plans where there are no contracts to lock people in. To reel in their share of customers, DAVE simply has to have a great marketing plan and execute on it. This isn't about technology - it's about meeting customer needs better than the other guys.

I also agree strongly with Dave on the second issue. Our incumbents have been crying for ages that it's taken almost 20 years to start truly becoming profitable given the high costs of building cellular networks. This is why they've fought competition for so long, as they'll now have to share those profits with newcomers. It's a bit like the pharmaceutical game where patent protection is necessary to enable a payback on the long R&D cycles to develop new drugs. Of course, this is one of the great things about Canada - all those low-cost generics, thanks to the absence of patent protection here. The tradeoff is simple - we get cheap drugs, but all the R&D is done elsewhere, and with that come lots of high value jobs. You can't have it all, right?

Anyhow, I've long concurred with Dave that networks can be built more quickly, more cheaply and more flexibly today, so cost isn't the issue it once was. I've certainly followed this long enough in the VoIP world, and it's no different for wireless. Dave added another important point that works in DAVE's favor - they're not building a national network. They're only serving the top 10 urban markets, so they're optimizing both their spend and coverage - good idea.

On to the third point - how will DAVE compete? That's really the big one, and I'm not entirely convinced they can bring enough differentiation to make a huge impact. On the other hand, maybe they don't need to. They're not as leveraged financially as Globalive, and to their credit, don't have any foreign ownership issues to hold things up (which I believe hurt Globalive by causing them to launch after the Xmas season rush). Aside from being a low cost operator and having a high value offering for a distinct segment of the market, I'm not really sure what their service will actually look like. Dave talks about having a flexible business and following the best of breed partering approach - Amdocs, Ericsson, Ingram Micro, etc. Nothing wrong with that, and it sure makes the risk factors more manageable.

It seems to me they'll be targeting urban users who are somewhere between the prepaid market and high end power users. There's a big middle ground there, and I'm sure with some well executed marketing, backed by reliable market research they'll hone in on this target and hit it pretty well. Dave also made it clear they won't be competing directly with the incumbents - again, a good idea. However, I think that's easier said than done. We don't know how the majors will respond, but whether it's their prepaid plans or postpaid plans, I have no doubt they'll find ways to counter any new entry that makes life difficult for them.

On that note, my impression is that the weak link for DAVE is channels. All Dave would say is they'll have "some forms of national retail". I don't think he means Sears or Walmart or Canadian Tire - or maybe this is just a red herring. There's a reason why Bell Canada bought The Source (Radio Shack) - to take another channel away from new entries. Sure, DAVE will have their own stores and independent dealers, but I suspect they'll need a lot more to get beyond grassroots support. If you look at my post about Wind that I cited earlier here, there are some photos of their kiosk, and it's not very encouraging. Guess what? I pass by that kiosk a few times a week, and it looks the same every time. With this kind of traffic, I don't think the incumbents have too much to worry about.

That said, with DAVE being a pure consumer play, and no other bundled service to piggyback on, having strong retail channels will be paramount. Otherwise, you get stuck on the Vonage treadmill and black hole of marketing spend to acquire - and keep - new customers. No thanks.

To wrap up, do I think DAVE will succeed? It won't be easy, but so far, I like their chances better than Wind. It's not quite as ambitious, and maybe that's the point. There are plenty of free radicals out there up for grabs, so why not DAVE? From where I sit day-to-day, I'm not seeing anything truly innovative here, and not once did I hear "applications" mentioned. I think there is a world of opportunity for wireless operators to reinvent their business - with or without smartphones. This holds equally for DAVE as it does for the incumbents, and if DAVE does what Dave says they will, they have as good a chance as anyone to make this work. More chapters to be written on this topic, so don't go away for too long.

Great to see a packed room for this

Our backroom media scrum after Dave's presentation