Note: This post first appeared in Forbes.com. Thank you to my Forbes.com editors as always for their help.
“It’s a little bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world?” said Jeffrey L. Bewkes, the chief executive of Time Warner, in an interview last week. “I don’t think so.” — From “Time Warner Views Netflix as a Fading Star,” New York Times, 2010.
Time Warner, it should be noted, no longer exists as an independent company. Netflix, on the other hand, has a market capitalization of over $100 billion. And whatever one thinks of the Albanian army, broadcast and cable industry giants have learned the hard way not to underestimate the disruptive power of giving customers the freedom to purchase a commodity (in this case, video content) when, where and how they want.
Could a Netflix-like dynamic play out in the wireless industry, long dominated by giants such as AT&T, Verizon and Telefonica?
Declan Ganley, an Irish telecommunications entrepreneur, occasional politician and founder of Rivada Networks, a U.S. wireless technology firm, is betting it will.
Ganley, now 50, skipped college and left Ireland to make his fortune in the then Soviet Union.
“I started in London, working at a Lloyds of London insurance broker. But I was fascinated by communications technology, and there was a dearth of satellite launch capacity everywhere, except in USSR. So, I pitched my boss on the idea of insuring launch platforms, and to make a long story short, I went to Moscow to see if I could make a go of it.”
It was 1988. Ganley was 20 years old.
Declan Ganley, CEO, Rivada Networks. Photo courtesy of Declan Ganley.
“I got there and realized two things. The Russians were hungry to do deals. I was practically a kid, but I could get meetings with the Soviet Space Agency, the Ministry of Trade. And second, the Soviet system was coming apart at the seams.”
Although Ganley’s satellite insurance concept had limited success (“My American government contacts explained there was no way they would use Soviet launch services,” Ganley recalls, laughing), he parlayed the experience into more profitable ventures. He made business contacts in Latvia, then part of the USSR. When Latvia became independent in 1991, he began exporting timber and aluminum through the Baltics to the West. A series of businesses rapidly followed: Broadnet, a European wireless data company; a Bulgarian cable TV firm; an unprofitable online jewelry retailer.
“I’m an entrepreneur to my bones,” he explains. “I’m not intimidated by what others might perceive as steep odds. At the same time, I’ve been fortunate to have partners willing to back my vision.”
His entrepreneurship has extended to politics. During the 2008 Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon (which would have expanded the European Union’s power over individual European governments), Ganley successfully campaigned for a No vote. From 2008 to 2009, he led Libertas, a political party that sought to reform the European Union. Although Libertas had limited success, its platform, which called for more EU accountability, still resonates in many European countries.
In 2004, Ganley founded Rivada Networks. It started as a provider of wireless networks for first responders during natural disasters. Along the way, it developed technology that could revolutionize how wireless service is delivered.
“The wireless industry today is a kind of corporate feudalism. Carriers buy the right to use wireless spectrum and then tell customers how, when and where they can buy wireless services,” Ganley argues. “There’s limited competition, carriers control the pace of innovation, and unlike commodities like electricity, there is no open wholesale market.”
The Idea: A Carrier-Independent Wholesale Market For Wireless Bandwidth
Rivada’s software allows wireless capacity to be bought and sold instantaneously, in whatever quantity, location or time a customer requires. It would enable a carrier-independent wholesale market for wireless high-speed bandwidth. If such an exchange existed, it’s easy to imagine Amazon bundling wireless connectivity with its offerings or large businesses buying off-peak bandwidth to back up their data. This could be especially important as new 5G wireless network technology is rolled out to enable new applications.
“Smart cities, self-driving vehicles, telemedicine, robotics, the internet of things: they all need wireless data connectivity, but in different quantities, locations and times,” Ganley points out. “Our technology allows wholesale customers to easily buy exactly what they need, instead of negotiating each purchase with a wireless carrier.”
In a 2016 paper, Peter Cramton, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, argued, “the introduction of an open-access wireless market is inevitable. Its benefits are simply too great to be ignored.”
In June 2018, Brad Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, tweeted his support for the concept:
A great 5G network, in my personal opinion, consists of an open wholesale market with a privatized company that isn’t a carrier. Government doesn’t own or operate it but does provide the spectrum. An open bidding process for bandwidth! No more dead spots!
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 6, 2018
None of this means Rivada has an easy path to success. Wireless carriers don’t want additional competition, and for every Netflix, there are many companies a little too far ahead of their time. But, having taken on the European Union, Ganley is not only undaunted – he relishes the prospect of a fight. “Real leadership isn’t being a good manager,” he says. “It’s about taking what others think are big risks and being able to see when the emperor hasn’t got any clothes on.”