MLL Telecom’s chief technology officer Peter Jennings remarked that the company has ‘come of age’, having recently celebrated its 21st year trading. The company raised eyebrows when it emerged as one of the seven bidders for 4G spectrum in December, taking its place alongside the UK’s big four operators, a BT subsidiary and a company that is part of the Hong Kong conglomerate PCCW.
Jennings is understandably coy after being asked how the bidding process is going, with Ofcom keeping the sales process a closely guarded secret. Among the more feverish attempts to get the auction into the mainstream press is talk of purpose built ‘war rooms’ and specially employed game theorists to determine how the auction will pan out.
While MLL may not have built a war room of its own, it has a four strong team, from technology experts to business analysts, working on the sale. While Jennings would not even confirm which lots the company is interested in, it seems likely that the high capacity 2.6GHz spectrum would be attractive to the backhaul specialists.
Jennings said that securing spectrum would be a ‘game-changer’ for the business but said there are no long term plans to try and break through into the consumer market. He said: ‘We are not trying to compete with the big players. Where we can fit in is in areas that aren’t as appealing to them. It could be local government or a business where we would absolutely have to guarantee coverage. It could also be a network where only certain people have access to it.’
One area of potential opportunity for MLL Telecom is in building networks in remote areas where coverage is required but is not cost-effective for a larger network to put together. One example could be oil rigs, but does making such a potentially large investment in the 4G auction make sense for MLL? Just how would it get its investment back? Jennings said its relatively meagre size actually works in its favour – it can pick and choose individual projects after fully working out the costs. He said: ‘We build networks to support others. It’s not quite wholesaling, more building bespoke networks.’
It could help the larger networks in coping with backhaul, that oft-used word that describes the transport of calls, data or texts onto an operator’s infrastructure. It does this already, albeit at a lesser extent – as Jennings noted: ‘It was through supporting mobile operators that led to us having a go at the spectrum auction.’
Building a wholesale network to deal with others’ capacity is an increasingly interesting part of the market, with Virgin Media trialling small cell networks in Newcastle and Bristol last year. MLL Telecom is holding its own trial in the north of England and sees this as either a complementary area of growth in addition to a 4G offer, or an alternative if it walks away from the auction empty handed. Jennings said: ‘The growth potential in small cells is huge. It’s an area where there’s a lot of complexity around getting the right sites and what technology to use.’ It might not be a dramatic new entrant to the UK mobile market, but it may be in a position to shore up others’ networks.
Author: Graeme Neill