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From the September 11, 2000 issue of Wireless Week

Swimming In A School

By Margo McCall

Ever looking out for the little guy, Mike Clough has established a national brand for small and mid-sized GSM carriers that could do for GSM what Cellular One once did for cellular.

Clough, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based wireless consulting firm Quantum Communications Group, Inc., has registered the brand name AmeriLink Personal Communications Systems for use by Choice Wireless of Texas, as well as any other small or mid-sized GSM carrier that is interested.

With more than 332 million users as of June, GSM is the world’s most popular digital technology. Yet only a scant 7 million or so of those users reside in the United States. The ranks of smaller GSM carriers are shrinking due to VoiceStream Wireless Corp.’s purchase of Aerial Communications Inc., Omnipoint Communications Corp. and most recently, its bid for Powertel Inc. Attempts in 1997 to create a nationwide identifier for GSM carriers–in the manner of the FTD brand–never took off in a big way.

Still, Clough believes there remain a number of potential customers for the AmeriLink brand name. And if not, well, that’s fine–Clough says he’s more interested in helping the little guys than in making big money.

Besides VoiceStream, which has succeeded in creating a national footprint, the big fish in the GSM sea are regional carriers BellSouth Mobility DCS and Pacific Bell Wireless and Microcell Telecommunications Inc., which operates throughout Canada’s most populous areas. But as is natural in the marine food chain, small fry tend to dominate, in part because lower-cost GSM equipment makes for a smoother market entry.

Among the minnows that could some day turn into sharks are more than a dozen carriers, including TWS Inc., Conestoga Wireless Co., Iowa Wireless Services, NPI Wireless, Telemetrix Technologies and Wireless 2000 PCS.

AmeriLink’s first customer, Choice Wireless, is but an egg on the sea floor. An alliance of four phone companies that aims to launch service Nov. 1, Choice Wireless intends to grow to 5,000 subscribers in the first year. Construction of its 197 cellular sites is under way. The venture includes Texas telephone companies Nortex Communications of Muenster, Community Telephone Co. of Windthorst and Santa Rosa Co-op. of Vernon, as well as Cherokee Telephone Co. in Calera, Okla. The system encompasses the Witchita Falls and Sherman/Dennison BTAs in Texas, and the Ardmore and Lawton BTAs in Oklahoma.

Clough is a veteran of McCaw Cellular, which was purchased by AT&T Wireless Services, and an early member of the Cellular One Group, which oversaw management of the nation’s first wireless national brand. Cellular One, which had more than 80 members during its heyday in the ’90s, is credited with giving cellular carriers the tools to compete with the regional Bell operating companies. The brand currently has more than 40 members who must adhere to standards in exchange for use of the brand name. Richard Lyons, president of the Cellular One Group, terms the 13-year-old brand a success, considering it has an awareness level of 23 percent.

Besides the brand, Clough has also licensed the domain name www.AmeriLinkPCS.com. During testing of the new brand name, those surveyed reacted favorably to AmeriLink PCS. Many even thought they’d heard of it before. “It is tough to go out and get a new name in telecommunications. Everything’s been taken up and used,” Clough says.

As it turns out, the creation of a national brand for GSM has been considered before.

Mike Houghton, a spokesman for the North American GSM Alliance LLC, says his organization’s early members were asked if they wanted a national brand. But they opted to market themselves under their own brands. Although the alliance of late has been turning its attention to roaming agreements to let GSM customers use their phones worldwide, it continues to count a number of smaller carriers among its membership. Houghton expresses doubt that a national brand would be of much use to smaller carriers, some of which end up working with larger carriers and using the larger carriers’ names.

Clough believes the Cellular One model remains valid today. Large carriers continue to gobble up their smaller brethren, making it exceedingly difficult for the remaining small fry to stay alive. “When you talk about brands, there’s some big heavy-duty cannons out there,” Clough says. “How’s the small carrier going to compete in the market? They need to be part of something bigger.”

And until they are bought by a larger company, for the smaller carriers, there will be AmeriLink.  


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