CNBC – Watch out for this ‘game-changing’ new commodity

Article Published: Monday, 3 Mar 2014 | 12:00 AM ET
By: Katy Barnato | Associate Producer,

Traders could find themselves buying and selling a new commodity in two years’ time: wireless broadband.

While the U.S. government is mulling whether to deregulate the wireless market like it did for the electricity network, Rivada Networks, a U.S. telecoms company, has patented a trading platform which it says will allow wireless broadband spectrum to be traded in milliseconds.

“This may be a once in a generation opportunity: you don’t see new commodities show up in the world on a regular basis… Once you can commoditize something, the natural progression is that there will be a free market,” the company’s founder, Irish entrepreneur Declan Ganley, told CNBC.

A commoditized product or service is one that is homogenous, plentiful, affordable — and therefore, tradable.

Broadband spectrum may be homogenous but is neither plentiful nor affordable at the moment. It is typically bought by telecommunication giants like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile in large chunks in government-endorsed auctions for multi-millions or billions of dollars.

The U.S. government has allocated $7 billion of government money and 20 megahertz of spectrum to build a countrywide broadband network, to aid communications between public safety agencies like fire brigades and police forces.

Individual states are allowed contract out the building of their networks and Rivada is hoping to offer to build New York City’s system.

Knocking down walls

In New York, Rivada is planning to use its technology, called Dynamic Spectrum Arbitrage Tiered Priority Access (DSATPA), to create a grid over the wireless network which divides broadband space into tiny segments.

This allows broadband carriers to buy or sell varying amounts of spectrum instantaneously in response to fluctuations in demand. It also allows for “prioritized access”, meaning operators can lease out their spectrum at times of typically low usage, safe in the knowledge that they can reclaim it anytime they wish.

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Mark Fowler, formerly the chairman of the U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission and now a Rivada board member, oversaw the breakup of AT&T’s telephone services monopoly in the 1980s, and described Rivada’s platform as part of an ongoing “evolution” in global asset-sharing.

“In the 1920, radio stations started to interfere with each other, so they were granted exclusive use of radio frequencies… like a walled garden… This is the 21st century evolution where walls are knocked down,” Fowler told CNBC.

Ganley believes his platform could help lower barriers to entry and increase competition in the wireless space. It could also bring a new asset class to Wall Street — a prospect that has garnered the support of some banking professionals.

One senior hedge fund professional, who wanted to remain unnamed to maintain his fund’s impartiality, told CNBC that the commodification of the wireless market could see it become as big as that for oil futures. He foresaw wireless one day being traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) — one of the world’s largest commodities exchanges.

“This will not happen overnight. It could take five-15 years to get global, to get something like the oil market. It has the same potential though,” he said.

New kids on the grid

The ability to buy bandwidth in tiny, time-specific — and cheaper — chunks could see multiple new entrants to the market. Ganley said that any company which needs bandwidth to deliver its consumer business might be interested, including social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, technology firms like Google and Samsung, or even online gaming companies.

The platform could also help combat the bandwidth crunch in city centers, with smartphone users, for instance, no longer having to struggle to gain wireless internet access in areas like of London’s “square mile”. To cope with the problem, carriers could purchase extra bandwidth to cope with higher demand at busy times of day in busy locations, and then sell it an hour or two later.

Ganley hopes that early adopters of the technology will include public safety agencies like fire brigades and hospitals.

Instantaneous mass communication can be vital for organisations like these — they may wish to broadcast a video of a crime scene or a photograph of a kidnapping victim to an entire police force. Public bodies would benefit from Rivada’s “prioritized access” technology, which would allow them to lease out spectrum to commercial carriers, but reclaim it at times of high need.

“If you are not monetizing it (the public safety network), you are not maximising its value… it would provide better value for the taxpayer,” Ganley said.

(View more from Ganley: Tax on entrepreneurs in Ireland is a ‘job killer’)

Broadband sell-off

As part of the planned U.S. broadband sell-off, states and districts will have the right to build their own part of the network and Rivada hopes to bid for the right to build New York City’s segment. This will cost an estimated $250 million and Rivada proposes building it its own cost, using debt capital, before recouping the funds through royalties levied on the revenue generated from commercial use.

As New York City — and all other districts — is yet to open the bidding process for the network-building contract, it remains to be seen whether Rivada’s platform will take-off.

But despite what Ganley sees as huge potential for growth, he said some telecommunications behemoths would be negative about the technology, given the potential for increased competition.

“I would certainly expect big established major incumbents not to welcome it with open arms,” he said.

—By CNBC’s Katy Barnato. Follow her on Twitter: @KatyBarnato

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