I had a 'breakfast' meeting (by five way telephone) with a 'business facilitator', an Australian ISP competitor, a Hong Kong VoIP provider and a US mobile minute aggregator late last week. This came about from my patient, but currently 'fruitless', pursuit of 3/4G mobile network access for data services. The concept of a 'business facilitator' is new to me, at least in the form of this meeting's arranger but, as with most business aspects in the USA, I guess it will catch on around the world if it already hasn't done that.
The reason for the discussion, understandably, was brought about by more small companies than just Exetel looking for providers of mobile data services but running in to the problem of insufficient volumes to be able to make the commitments desired by mobile network owners. Having already had some serious discussions with an Australian network owner (which are still progressing) I have a pretty good idea what Exetel can currently commit to and over what time frame and also have some appreciation of what is going to be required over the next eight 'quarters' in terms of a viable market place offerings.
I hadn't had any previous contact with the Hong Kong or Australian company but had been in sporadic contact with the US company over the past 6 months. I knew of the Australian ISP but had no real ideas of its size or capabilities and had never come across the Hong Kong company (which surprised me a little as I had looked at the Hong Kong VoIP providers in what I thought was reasonable detail) so it was an interesting set of conversations for me.
Personally, I don't think any of the participants in this teleconference achieved whatever it was they were looking to achieve - I certainly didn't - with the possible exception of confirming what I thought I already knew - that reaching the target volumes required is going to be extremely difficult and that putting together some sort of 'consortium/partnership' is going to be only slightly less difficult. I did get some sort of insight into what the HK company saw for the VoIP market, globally, over the next 12 - 18 months which was quite interesting but of no relevance to Exetel.
If what the other ISP was saying was even half true then I've seriously underestimated the size and future growth of that company (I'd never considered them as being anything but a 'bit player') but, from what they were saying they have as many DSL customers as Exetel and ten times the number of VoIP customers.
So when the conference ended after around 45 minutes with none of the parties expressing the need for further discussions I gave it no more thought and while I regretted the wasted time I thought I had at least closed off another option.
So I was surprised to get a phone call from the 'facilitator' while driving to the office this morning asking me for a meeting when he was in Sydney later this week. I asked for a meeting agenda, as I always do (and remain continually surprised at how so few people are prepared to actually provide a detailed agenda for a business meeting these days), and all he would say was "I might have a proposal that will really interest you". So I thanked him and said that while I didn't wish to appear rude I was too old to go to meetings where I didn't know who would be there, what topics were to be discussed and the time allocated for each topic and, therefore, what I needed to prepare/inform myself about to make the time worthwhile to me and to other people.
I think he was offended but said 'his client' was a US minute aggregator (a different company to the one on the teleconference last week) that wanted to establish a presence in Australia and was looking for an established Australian company in telecommunications to JV their Australian establishment by providing hosting, bandwidth and other systems facilities plus helping in the recruitment of personnel and providing an analysis of various Australian market situations in return for 'favoured son' access to and pricing of their services. I was surprised and probably showed that I was taken aback - which I very definitely was.
I tried to explain that I had no idea what might come from such a discussion, if anything, and I had no idea about what a small company like Exetel could contribute to their operations as we would have no idea how such services operate - which was why we want access to a major mobile network. He said that he was fully aware of Exetel's capabilities from the previous discussion and also from prior knowledge and he had passed that information on to his client who believed the time would be well spent. When I, again, expressed the view that Exetel had no real volumes of mobile minutes his response was that his client couldn't work with any company that already had a significant relationship with one of the Australian mobile network owners.
So I'm intrigued enough to meet and interested enough to learn more about whether anything will change if the big 'minute aggregators' extend their operations more directly in Australia than is the case today.
As this is now the fourth tentative 'offer' of participating in a JV since the end of 2007 I'm beginning to wonder what it is that other company's may think they see in Exetel that I don't see in either our own company or in the sorts of situations that these JV operations intend to address.
Perhaps I'm too blinkered and am too used to fiercely competing (being forced to fiercely compete) for every last dollar of revenue that Exetel is missing out on opportunities that would benefit it?
Exetel have a few qualities of interest to other parties:
Very short time to market Swift adaptation to market forces and new technologies
* High organisation efficiency
The fact that Exetel have gotten to the stage of being able to consider carbon neutral practices and displayed an evident maturity of their business model, making them the only ISP suitable for a range of potential business partners.