Tuesday, December 21, 2010

End of Qualcomm's TV career

On Monday, Qualcomm announced it had sold its FLO TV 700 MHz spectrum to AT&T for $1.9b. Most of the articles focused on how AT&T will have enough spectrum to roll out LTE after the PR disaster of its 3G network congestion, post-iPhone.

By one estimate, Qualcomm spent $683 million for the former UHF Channel 55, whose national rollout to AT&T and Verizon customers was delayed when Congress (and the administration) delayed the DTV switchover in a futile attempt to prevent any inconvenience to analog TV owners.

The concept of FLO was twofold. First, broadcasting is a more efficient way to deliver spectrum-intensive video; second, Qualcomm had the money, connections and chutzpah to create a nationwide multichannel TV network.

FLO has been in critical condition much of the year. After an upbeat assessment for the NYT in May, a month later later CEO Paul Jacobs admitted problems but ruled out any closing:
“We are not shutting down MediFlo. … We’ve always said to our investors that we’re going to either sell it or spin it someday. It’s been that way from the very beginning so the question is to just find the right partners to work with and what’s the possibility to get more usage of it.”
Seven weeks later, Jacobs said that the company was looking to sell the service.

What happened to FLO? In July, Eric Zeman of Information Week said it was the price ($10/month), lack of devices and delayed release. For consistency’s sake, Zeeman said three years earlier that it was overpriced with no real market.

I think price is part of it. A related issue is that consumers were paying $10/month for increased spectral capacity that helped carriers, not necessarily something they would see or directly value. (Of course, if it’s a carrier pain point, perhaps they should have charged less).

But I also think the Internet has created a generation of instant-gratification, asynchronous entertainment consumers. Gone is the decade when the whole country tuned to watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday night (or I Love Lucy or All in the Family or Who Shot JR?) Today YouTube and Hulu (and iTunes and Amazon and Netflix) promise Generations Y and Z instant video gratification, whenever and wherever they want it. I think there’s no going back, at any price.

With the end of FLO, Elizabeth Woyke of Forbes suggested that it pointed to a pattern of failure for Qualcomm, after a 2005 Forbes checklist that also included Wireless Knowledge and Digital Cinema. (The earlier story noted that the latter failures were initiatives championed by Jacobs the younger before ascending to CEO, a point Woyke politely left out of her story).

In one of his earliest executive positions, Jacobs ran the QCP handset division for Qualcomm — which was a product failure but a strategic success. On the one hand, Qualcomm never learned how to make handsets and eventually both it and its Sony JV partner gave up (Sony later joining with Ericsson to learn its secrets). On the other hand, the exit came after the 2G IS-95 (later known as cdmaOne) was well established with multiple handset suppliers.

What are the consequences of failure. I recall a Sept 2006 telecom council event when Gina Lombardi, then-president of the FLO TV subsidiary, was prominent at the QCOM annual meeting and part of Paul’s inner circle. In January 2009 she was pushed aside, and left the company that fall (after 19 years there). So far her successor, former Handango CEO Bill Stone, remains a top Qualcomm executive.

So what is the lesson going forward? Certainly Qualcomm is a lot like Intel: it’s good at technology, its original franchise was a license to print money, but it has a mixed record creating products consumers want to buy.

It has done an excellent job of expanding its semiconductor business from radio modems to smartphone processors, particularly with Android smartphones.

But I think the reality is that the US wireless industry is bigger and messier and less malleable than in the early 90s when Irwin Jacobs pushed through CDMA and brought it to market. It’s also more linked to international standards, with lead cdmaOne and CDMA-2000 customer Verizon, forcing Qualcomm to kill its own 4G option two years ago and support LTE.

Fortunately, one other legacy strategy from Jacobs père remains crucial for Qualcomm’s success today. Cofounder Irwin Jacobs pushed aggressively to invest in rapidly growing overseas markets, most notably China but also Korea and India. Jacobs fils is continuing these efforts, even if all three countries (and Southeast Asia and South America and other developing countries) continue to be challenging places to do business for a heavily regulated industry like telecom.