Here's a perfect illustration of how fast the industry is
moving. Global Telecoms Business interviewed Kris Rinne in mid
February, as chief technology officer of Cingular, the US
mobile phone company owned by AT&T and BellSouth.
|Kris Rinne: with
HSDPA we can do
anything that competing
technologies can do
Fortunately she's still there, still at Cingular, still as
CTO, but only a couple of weeks after the 3GSM conference in
Barcelona where the interview was carried out AT&T and
BellSouth announced an agreed merger.
That doesn't mean they have merged. It is subject to all the
usual caveats, including approval of the shareholders of both
companies and of regulatory bodies not just in Washington DC
but in all 50 states and probably in Brussels, seat of the
European Commission, too.
But if the proposal goes ahead it will push Rinne into an
even more key position than she is now. Today's AT&T is, of
course, the sum of the 2005 union between SBC and the
shape-changing AT&T that somehow survived as a
long-distance operator from 1984 until it was taken over by
SBC, which thereupon took its name.
It seems certain that the next merger, between BellSouth and
AT&T Mark II (or Mark VIII if you take into account all the
changes the old company underwent between 1984 and 2005), will
also be named AT&T. Mark III or Mark IX, depending on how
And that will instantly produce a further transformation,
because Cingular will then be wholly owned by the latest
version of AT&T. And of course you won't need reminding
— well, maybe you will, because reshuffles in the US
telecoms industry in the past few years have been hard to keep
up with — that in 2004 Cingular bought AT&T
Wireless for $41 billion, outbidding Vodafone's $35
AT&T Wireless had been part of the old, post-1984
AT&T, but had been split off in 2001 — keeping the
name, though. The AT&T Wireless brand was finally retired
in November 2004 when new owner Cingular did a store-by-store
refit across the US.
Well, not finally. After the SBC/AT&T merger was
completed at the end of 2005, the information emerged that the
new company would recreate the old brand for its mobile
services, to be offered via the Cingular joint venture with
There hasn't been time for that strategy to be developed.
One might, cynically, think that it could have been a statement
more for the ears of BellSouth's board, to indicate the new
AT&T's level of determination.
Still, if the latest merger, between the new AT&T and
the old BellSouth, goes through this year, it looks likely that
Cingular, in 100% ownership of the new new AT&T, will be
rebranded back to AT&T Wireless, to become the mobile arm
of an ever greater AT&T.
If Kris Rinne knew what was afoot when she was at 3GSM in
Barcelona she wasn't telling. AT&T and BellSouth were still
the two separate shareholders, owning 60% and 40% respectively.
Her preoccupations were mostly to do with the rollout of 3G
technology and services across her network.
Rinne is the most powerful GSM-oriented CTO in North America
— and one of the most powerful in the world. In the US
Cingular has almost as many customers as Orange has worldwide,
yet has the advantages of being — the effects of the
2004 merger aside — a single network with a single
strategy for technology, services, content, marketing and
regulatory environment in a single nation.
Out of the backwater
The US and Canada spent many years as backwaters of the
worldwide GSM standard, preferring the Qualcomm-backed CDMA
standard or non-GSM versions of TDMA. International travellers,
used to turning on their GSM phones after landing at Charles de
Gaulle, Schiphol, Hong Kong or Heathrow and reporting back home
or into the office, were — till a few years ago
— left incommunicado at JFK, LAX or O'Hare.
But over the past year or so the GSM family — as
the GSM Association likes to call it — has boomed. In
the US and Canada there were 56 million GSM users at the end of
2004, but 80 million a year later. Latin American GSM growth
was even faster, from 62 million to 118 million.
Within the US there are two significant GSM operators:
Cingular had 54 million customers at the end of 2005, though
not all of them GSM, compared with T-Mobile's 21 million. Its
biggest rival, the CDMA-using Verizon Wireless, reported 51.3
million customers at the end of 2005. Orange, incidentally, to
back up that comparison a few paragraphs ago, has 57 million
customers, but in 17 countries.
UK-based Vodafone has a 40% stake in Verizon Wireless,
though that appears to be under review; and Germany's Deutsche
Telekom owns 100% of T-Mobile USA. So Cingular — or
AT&T Wireless, or however it ends up — has the
potential of becoming the most powerful wholly US-owned mobile
operator, especially once it is inside an enlarged
As testament to Rinne's position in the GSM industry she
chairs the board of governors of 3G Americas, the industry
organisation which represents suppliers and operators in North
and South America. So at 3GSM in Barcelona she was speaking on
behalf of the organisation as well as in her role as CTO of
But Cingular first, and particularly its aggressive move
into 3G and high-speed data, starting at the end of 2005. "On
December 6 we launched into 16 markets, that cover 52
communities, with HSDPA," she says.
Launching with data cards
"Our primary suppliers are Lucent and Ericsson at launch. We
also have two PCMCIA cards from Novatel and Sierra and those
cards are capable of HSDPA at both 1900 and 850 bands. And
they're quad-band GSM EDGE, so they're global devices, but the
UMTS would be just domestic for the US."
And in February Cingular announced an agreement with Option
for a third card, "which also includes the 2100 UMTS HSDPA, so
now that's a global device for UMTS HSDPA, and it still has the
quad-band GSM EDGE".
In early March, a few weeks after the interview, the company
launched Cingular Video on two 3G phones. Service is available
in those same 16 markets at first, offering highlights and
other material from a range of TV channels — see
"We'll continue to expand our footprint in 2006, both in the
number of cities involved — we'll expand into most of
the major market areas by the end of 2006 — and we'll
expand the footprint within the cities that we've already
On video "we announced an agreement with HBO for exclusive
content that's tailored for the wireless device", says Rinne.
"We'll have many, many other content providers. This will be
video streaming capabilities — shorter clips. We're
aren't running two-hour movies."
Services will be available over 3G with hand-off
capabilities onto the EDGE network, "so it won't just be
exclusively in those 16 markets, though that's where the
emphasis will be, but as you move into our EDGE environment it
will continue to work".
The official list of the 16 markets is Austin, Baltimore,
Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland,
Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle,
Tacoma and Washington DC.
How will people use mobile TV? Rinne is interestingly
cautious. "I think it's to be determined. You know, I do look
at it and I don't think any of us have any more hours in the
day to watch TV and so the only way you're going to expand the
content that you get is to have something that works on a
mobile device, that is portable with you. For me personally, I
think that means more short clips that are readily
Filling that idle time
It's analogous to portable email. "If I get five minutes,
I'll check my email. I also use our WAP portal to go check my
favourite sports teams or stock quotes — any time I
get some idle time, even during meetings," she laughs. "I think
that's where the opportunity is, to fill the idle time with
content that you're personally interested in."
Will broadcast technologies — such as DVB-H or
Qualcomm's MediaFlo — be part of the mix for mobile
TV? With TV over 3G, every viewer gets their own, personal
bitstream — adding to the cost and to network
"At some point in time I think it needs to be part of the
mix. Today on my HSDPA network I can serve that information,
but I'm serving it up one at a time."
She gestures around the meeting room, which includes a press
officer from Cingular and the marketing director of 3G
Americas. "If all four of us in this room wanted to look at the
Winter Olympics highlights from last night, I will have used
transmission resources and over-the-air resources to deliver
the very same content four times to deliver the same content to
the same space."
There is an efficiency that broadcast gives, says Rinne.
"What we need to learn over time is what is that balance. If
the four of us want different contents and we all want it on
demand, then it may or may not fit."
Broadcast will be part of the mix, "but I think it will be
integrated, where an operator is using it for efficiencies and
to a certain extent quality", but there has to be transparency
with the 3G service, "not like what we've done with email
versus MMS, where you have to decide with some clients what the
What about the different technologies that Qualcomm and the
other companies are offering? "We're looking at both DVB-H and
MediaFlo," says Rinne. "We haven't made a decision. The US has
some unique circumstances regarding spectrum in that
DVB-H is basically a mobile phone version of DVB, the
near-universal set of standards for digital TV broadcasting by
satellite, cable and terrestrial transmitters. MediaFlo is
Qualcomm's own standard — again — which in
the US will be based on the company's use of a single UHF TV
channel across the country to distribute digital TV to mobile
phones in association with operators.
Mobile TV will produce a number of issues for operators.
Roaming, for a start: if you're roaming away from your home
network can you access the normal range of channels for the
same price? And what if some of those channels are not usually
available from the network where you happen to be: you might be
in a different country, for example, or in an area that is not
geographically covered by the channel you want to see. Or maybe
the channel's rights to particular programmes is geographically
There are "a lot of challenges we need to sort out" over a
range of issues, including content licensing. "My perception is
that if a company has the broadcast rights to that, it might be
geographically contained as well. We've got the traditional
roaming challenges that we're good at solving, but we'd have to
solve them in another way," says Rinne. "But then we have
rights and content."
At the same time as planning these advances into 3G, Rinne
has been overseeing a complex merger between Cingular's
infrastructure with that she took over from AT&T
"We had overlapping TDMA networks and we had overlapping GSM
networks," she says. "We have been in the process of
integrating those so that there is a single seamless network
and then introducing 3G services on top of that."
In the company's fourth quarter results a chart of GSM
growth shows "we grew five million customers but at the same
time we were doing migrations of TDMA to GSM so we really grew
nearly eight and a half to nine million customers on our GSM
When Cingular launched its 3G services "I did launch with a
separate core because it was new technology and you don't want
to put that on something that is used by the people who are
paying the bills", she smiles. "In 2006 I'll be using common
core. Obviously I'm using the common cell infrastructure
equipment, the roaming capabilities, the billing capabilities,
the provisioning capabilities. I didn't have to go build new
ones, so it definitely has a migration path."
But how does HSDPA compare with other data technologies such
as WiMax? "There's a lot of discussion about competing air
interfaces," agrees Rinne. She believes that "in five megahertz
we can do anything that those competing technologies can do,
and we already have infrastructure that's in the ground, that's
operating now, and a common core and billing systems and
provisioning systems — all of which kind of gets left
out of the discussion when you're talking about new
There are applications for WiMax, says Rinne. "I think
there's point-to-point connectivity, there's some basic nomadic
services, but I think when you listen to the technology debates
you have to understand the fine print."
What are people using HSDPA for in Cingular's new 3G
operations? "What we're offering today is primarily to connect
your laptop back to your enterprise solutions. As we begin to
offer the video services we'll be introducing additional
services on to that core infrastructure."
But there are different ways of looking at high speed, Rinne
points out. "As an operator I tend to think about speeds in two
dimensions. One of them is the speeds I might provide to you as
an individual customer for your application. The other way I
use speed is capacity. Those products and services that I'm
already successful in and you already understand, now can do
more bits per hertz than I was previously."
That means improved efficiency, improved quality as well as
improved capabilities "that I can provide by leveraging those
Beating the speed
In terms of raw speed, Cingular is "advertising 400 to 700
kilobits a second and beating that", she says. "We have peak
speeds of over one megabit a second." The chips in the devices
are capable of 1.8 megabits and Cingular demonstrated 3.6
megabits at the Consumer Electronics Show in the US in January
"on the very same infrastructure that I already have in the
It's not even waiting for a software upgrade, she says:
"It's there. I just need the device and the transport to
Rinne remains a sceptic about wifi and WiMax. "It's all
unlicensed spectrum," she points out. That means there's an
unregulated free-for-all for capacity — as exhibitors,
delegates and journalists knew only too well at 3GSM, where a
quick survey in one exhibition hall showed 30 or 40 base
stations competing for bandwidth. "That gets you into the
licensed/unlicensed discussions — it's more of the
fine print you need to understand," she smiles.
Let's go back to the integration between the old Cingular
and AT&T Wireless. Is that done? "The people part is done,"
says Rinne. "Where we had multiple TDMA networks, they have
been collapsed to a single network. There are 67 markets where
we had overlapping GSM networks. We've completed the
integration of 33 of those but that represents only about a
third of the base stations."
Cingular picked the smaller markets to start the physical
integration process, to ensure the processes were right
— you don't want to tamper with coverage in a large
city until you're really experienced.
"We will complete that by the end of 2006," she says. "In
addition to that there is the billing and provisioning and
support systems. We're well on the way on the integration."
Is Cingular working with a particular billing company on
this? "All of them," she grins. That's the story of this
industry. "Our primary systems are an Amdocs system and one
that's internally developed. We'll continue to have Amdocs and
then home-grown elements."
There will be two billing systems, with one for a particular
geographic region or customer group. "As far as the customer is
concerned it'll be a single billing system."
But why keep the two? To keep Amdocs on its toes, seems to
be the answer. "We do a lot of two vendor things," says Rinne
But it's clearly part of her strategy to make vendors
compete for business. "You get the best of both worlds. It's
kind of amazing when I sit at meetings and I can say: 'You
know, vendor X said I could have this third quarter of 06. Now
when did you tell me you could let me have it?' Third quarter
of 06 is usually the answer. That way I don't get first quarter
The in-house system is there not only because it ensures
Cingular is an informed purchaser, but because there are
back-office services that run across different parts of the
system, she adds.
And Cingular's back office is a bit more complicated than
Cingular is unusual in the industry because it has a
separate business marketing group. "They let me be their CTO,"
she says, "but they have their own customer care, their own
product development and their own device management. They have
their own IT support in terms of point of sales systems,
billing systems, sales force automation systems —
because their needs are different."
So there is one entity that focuses on products and services
for the consumer market, and one for business. "It's my job to
make sure we use the same infrastructure to support that. I
think we're unique in that regard. It gives us a very clear
On the consumer side Cingular has five push email solutions.
"Some of those are carrier hosted, so that a small or medium
business doesn't have to have a server on its infrastructure.
We also solve the device integration issues."
On the business side there are also specialist, "non-stock"
devices, such as the terminals that UPS couriers use. "I don't
acquire those for them but I verify the radio side and I
provide them a provisioning system."
There are laptops coming with built-in 3G terminals. "We
have agreements with Dell and Lenovo for them to deploy HSDPA
and GSM EDGE in the devices, in the PCs themselves." Cingular
certifies the products and provides the SIM card to customers
"and we'll have the client optimised to work with our
What will be the sales channel to reach the customers with
this service. "They usually just let me worry about the
technology," laughs Rinne. GTB
3G Americas at the edge
As a senior figure in 3G Americas, Kris Rinne is
playing a leading role in promoting GSM technology in
the western hemisphere. "3G Americas supports the whole
family of services," says Rinne, who became chair of
the industry body in January 2005. "The member
companies support GSM EDGE." They work with suppliers
and produce white papers for operators on enterprise
applications for EDGE networks. "We do papers on
management, roaming capabilities for member
The companies have deployed GPRS extensively, she
adds. "Most of them have deployed EDGE throughout North
and South and Latin America, and with 3G technologies
they're at different stages in terms of their business
3G Americas is highly pro-EDGE, a technology which
is designed to boost the data rate of GRPS networks. In
the US both Cingular and T-Mobile have launched EDGE
services, as have Telcel in Mexico and Rogers in
Canada. A total of 209 operators around the world have
committed to deploying EDGE and 125 are already
commercial in 74 countries. Those 209 operators have a
billion customers between them, giving them a
potentially huge market for EDGE services.
Though much of the industry's focus is on 3G
networks, devices such as 3G data cards for laptops
have the ability to fall back to EDGE operation when
they're outside 3G coverage areas. The data rates
aren't anything like what is possible with 3G, but
they're a lot better than fixed dial-up services.
"Where UMTS or HSDPA are not deployed, in many cases
the services will fall back to EDGE, transparently,
without putting in a new card or having a separate
subscription and separate bills," says Rinne. "As a
user, you may see the difference in latency and speed
but you don't have to do something totally
GSM is now deployed in every country of the
Americas, every island and territory. "EDGE deployments
are definitely happening, so we're moving forward from
2G. In the Americas 80 operators in 36 countries have
committed to deploy EDGE."
And 3G has started in South America, with tests in
Brazil and Uruguay.
Owners of Cingular 3G phones in 16 US metropolitan areas wil
be able to watch video clips as well as sports, news and
weather, entertainment and premium content.
News will come from CNN (including business and politics),
Fox News and NBC. There will be local weather forecasts for 100
cities across the US.
Sports providers include CBS, ESPN and Fox. There will be
cartoons from the Cartoon Network and Disney, and trailers of
programmes on ABC, Fox and NBC. In addition HBO will be
providing premium content at $2.99 or $4.99 a month.
Cingular Video users can create a personal home page with up
to three links to their preferred sites. In addition, the
service will automatically stream local weather information to
a user's personal news and weather page each day.
Cingular Video will initially be available in the markets of
Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas,
Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco,
San Jose, Seattle, Tacoma and Washington DC.
3G services were launched on an LG and a Samsung handset,
with a Nokia and an additional LG handset to be added to the
product line shortly.
Cingular Video uses Helix software from RealNetworks.