Church preaches the potential of wireless world to Canadians

If there’s one thing Joe Church is known for – besides being one of Canada’s most ardent believers in wireless technology – it is his Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

According to one industry analyst who often attends the same conferences as Church, people tend to crowd the room when the wireless preacher is making a speech.

“I was talking with some department officials and some other guys outside the room when all of a sudden we heard that Joe Church was going to be presenting,” the analyst recalled of last November’s Spectrum 20/20, an industry event for the Radio Advisory Board of Canada. “So at that point my conversation with those guys was cut short because everybody wants to get into the room to watch his presentation.”

They weren’t disappointed, the analyst chuckled. “Church was talking about how Industry Canada was going to be allocating some spectrum through an auction process, and at some point a .wav file comes up of Shania Twain singing, ‘That don’t impress me much.’ He’s a charmer, he really is.”

For his part, Church said the Shania slide was actually used at a conference in the United States, “where Americans historically don’t have a lot of knowledge about Canada.”

But, in truth, if Americans don’t know much about the average Joe Canadian, they certainly seem to have caught on to Joe Church.

Since the former executive of Cantel, BCI and Bell Canada went on his own to become a wireless entrepreneur in the early ’90s, Church has been blessed with the backing of some major American telecommunications firms.

One of his first wireless licences was in the narrowband PCS spectrum, which was designed to provide two-way paging capability. Church’s partner at the time was AT&T Wireless, which held similar spectrum in the States. Unfortunately for both, the technology never took off, though Church said he sees Waterloo, Ont.’s Research in Motion doing the sorts of things he had envisioned on its BlackBerry devices.

In 1995, Church’s company, LanSer Wireless, tried unsuccessfully to be granted one of three 30Mhz blocks of PCS spectrum being doled out by Canada’s federal government. He lost out to Toronto’s Clearnet PCS (now part of Telus Mobility) and Montreal’s Microcell Telecommunications Inc. To this day, Church remains a little miffed that the government decided to hold on to the last 30Mhz block of spectrum.

In 1999, Church finally came up big. Backed by TD Capital Group Inc., the investment arm of one of Canada’s largest banks, and NextLink, a major CLEC in the States, Church’s new company, Wispra Networks, spent $74 million to win licences in Canada’s six largest markets in the 24Ghz broadband wireless band.

NextLink, which was founded by Craig McCaw – perhaps the most famous wireless entrepreneur after he sold his company McCaw Cellular to AT&T for US$16.5 billion – held the same spectrum in the States, leading some to speculate whether Church was merely a front to get around Canadian ownership regulations. Church flatly denies this.

“NextLink (now called XO Communications) has had people in it that are from AT&T Wireless and Nextel and other companies that I have had dealings with in the past,” he said of the relationship. “The opportunities in Canada are similar to the opportunities in the United States. It’s natural that one of the players in the U.S. would be looking at what the Canadian opportunities are.”

Still, the allegations continued to dog Church right into last month’s PCS spectrum auction. It didn’t help that in the fall Church’s Wispra Networks had merged with Canadian CLEC C1 Communications Inc. to become XO Communications Canada.

Throughout last month’s three-week spectrum auction, even as Church’s company W2N (a subsidiary of Wireless 2 Networks) bid hundreds of millions of dollars on licences for Toronto and Montreal, analysts speculated that Church was planning to flip the licences if he managed to win them.

Church’s relationship with McCaw, and the fact that McCaw’s company, Nextel, is one of America’s largest wireless carriers, is one of the reasons for the suspicions. The other is Church’s lack of success in bringing wireless products to market.

“He’s tried,” said Iain Grant, a telecommunications analyst with The Yankee Group in Canada in Brockville, Ont. “He’s been a pioneer and a visionary and obtained licences with business plans, but in terms of actually implementing stuff I would think his record falls a little short.

“So whatever he tells you he wants to do, I think you might want to put in the back of your mind, ‘Is he buying it for his own purposes or is he buying it to sell this valuable spectrum to someone else?'”

After coming up short in the recent PCS auction (W2N only ended up spending a little more than $11 million on three licences), analysts are still predicting that Church will sell his spectrum blocks, possibly to competitor Bell Mobility. Without the lucrative Toronto market to cover infrastructure costs, it is unlikely that he will use his licences in eastern Quebec, Alberta and B.C. to begin rolling out his planned data-centric wireless network, the analysts say.

Church himself admitted that he and his partners, including wireless Internet incubator Itemus Corp., will have to assess their options.

But despite setbacks, Church does not appear to be deterred. After working in wireless for 17 years, he is convinced of its potential to change the way people not only communicate, but how they live.

“Some people have suggested that persistence is one of my characteristics and I would tend to agree with that,” he said. “I very strongly believe in the Winston Churchill phrase, ‘Never, never, never quit.’

“And if you don’t win this time, you go back and restructure and figure out what you’re going to do next. And I think that’s part of what people‚Ķconsider as important, that you’re going to follow through and do your best and deliver if you can.”