Saying Goodbye to my Syringa Wireless Phone

Yesterday I shut off my very last Syringa Wireless phone forever. I had to go to the Verizon Wireless store in Pocatello to port my wife’s number to Verizon. (Note: On December 31, 2015, all Syringa Wireless service will stop working.)

I felt a real sadness, a loss, as I removed the Syringa Wireless SIM card from her phone, and replaced it with a new Verizon card. This was the end of an era, and the end of a grand dream. And, it once again raises the question: How can the little guy survive in today’s market?

Syringa Wireless started in 2006 when several local Idaho rural Independent Telecos came together and decided to launch a local mobile phone company. Between us, we already covered most of the geographic area of the southern part of the state of Idaho with traditional landline phone service, so it seemed to make sense to try to offer this newfangled mobile phone service to our customers, especially since the trends seemed to indicate that mobile would eventually become more popular than home phone service. There was a real excitement about the launch of Syringa Wireless–I remember sitting at lunch with John Ney, Syringa Wireless’ newly-hired manager of marketing and operations, in a small restaurant in Pocatello, as he talked excitedly about this opportunity and unfolded his vision for marketing this fantastic new service. A local wireless company built just for Idaho, with caring, small-town customer service that the big national conglomerates would never match. We would cover the rural Idaho hills with towers and provide service in remote places where the big boys would never go. We would be easy to work with. We would know the names of every one of our customers. Our existing home phone customers would flock to our new service “like the salmon of Capistrano.” 

We already knew all about providing voice service. We had a ready-made customer base. We had a rural network to tap into. We had a few million dollars in funding. We had a growing industry. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, things started to go wrong right from the start.  The funding ran out quickly. Like most startups, Syringa Wireless struggled year after year to generate a positive cash flow. Spectrum licencing was an issue. Tower lease costs were an issue. Securing the latest handsets was an issue. Our customers didn’t automatically trust our new wireless service like we assumed they would–they trusted the marketing they saw on TV from the big boys. The biggest obstacle was of course the crushing competition from very rich, very large, and very powerful multinational wireless giants. This wasn’t as big an issue in 2006 as it quickly became once smart phones became part of everyday consumer life. Everything can change so quickly in this industry. In 2006 the Syringa Wireless tagline was “Ring Me.” Those were the old days when people still talked to each other. Nobody could have forseen in 2006 how mobile data and the coolness of the smart device would become the only thing that mattered in the mobile phone market.

Like most things over the past decade, it all started with the iPhone.
We couldn’t get them. The big boys could.

We were still peddling Blackberrys with those ridiculous rollerballs (Canadians!) while the iPhone was taking over the industry. I remember sitting at a table eating a sandwich with a pasty software engineer  from Blackberry during a CES Conference in Vegas. We were watching the beautiful people instinctively flock  like the salmon of Capistrano to the booths that advertised iPhone and Android apps, while the Blackberry tradeshow booth was deserted and cold. Nobody was making apps for Blackberry. I asked the Blackberry engineer about this contrast. He scoffed and said something like: “People don’t want apps. They want our secure email platform.” Well, turns out, no, they really did want apps. And they wanted the trendy phones. And we didn’t have them. I knew we were doomed when I saw one of my coworkers sheepishly trying to hide when I caught him hanging around the AT&T booth in Costco.

Eventually Syringa Wireless got the iPhone, but by then it was all about 4G. Syringa Wireless put up over 70 towers in rural Idaho, and we had great voice service, especially since customers could roam on both Verizon and Sprint, so you had their whole network plus our rural network, but while the big boys were fighting over who could make the most outrageous advertising claims about their 4G service, Syringa Wireless was desperately trying to roll out 3G service everywhere. By then, Syringa Networks had taken over direct ownership of the struggling Syringa Wireless company, and their play was to offer unlimited 3G service, so customers wouldn’t have to worry about mobile data caps. Seemed like sensible brand positioning, but the ever widening gap between the big national companies and a local Idaho home-grown wireless company turned out to be too far to overcome, and Syringa Wireless had to close up shop at the end of 2015.

Syringa Wireless lasted a lot longer than many of the other smaller wireless providers who were gobbled up years ago. It is important to remember that Syringa Wireless was not a dealer, agent or rebranding of one of the larger providers–this was a unique, grassroots Idaho mobile network with their own towers and equipment, trying to make it against all odds. Maybe someday the story will make a good Hollywood movie.

So, what did we lose with the end of Syringa Wireless? Well, for one thing, the last outpost of local customer service in the wireless industry. When I wanted a new phone, all I had to do was walk a few paces over to Linda’s desk or Tina’s desk and ask for a new phone. Tina would open the drawer, give me a new phone, and have it activated in a couple of minutes. Any customer in our service area who walked into our office could enjoy a similar relaxing, personal service experience.

My first trip to the Verizon/Oligopoly store was a vastly different experience. Interestingly, I had just come from a federal government agency office before visiting the wireless store, and the experiences were eerily similar. I basically had to take a number and take a seat. At the federal agency, it was my social I had to enter into a screen. At the Verizon store, it was my wireless phone number. Then, we sat, and sat, and waited, while they called names. All around me at both places, people were staring blankly at the walls and floor, totally depressed. The place was overcrowded and understaffed; the employees were doing their best to keep up but were sticking carefully to procedures and policies. I was impressed with the efficiency of our designated salesperson once our name was finally called, but the process of trying to sign up for phone service took over an hour. I came out with nothing except a working phone. No receipt. No account number. I was told to go online to complete the process. And, keep in mind, this was in rural Pocatello Idaho. I shudder to think what it would be like in one of those stores in a major city. This is the nature of the oligopoly. People clearly had nowhere else to go–the other company’s store would have been just as crowded. I have worked in telecom for over 10 years and had never seen a line of customers like this–not even when we offered the $1 a month mobile phone.

Is this the inevitable future of technology service? What is it going to take for a local technology service provider to survive in this world where all the big tech companies are trying to get back to their natural state of monopoly, and getting plenty of encouragement and assistance from the state and federal governments in their quest? Shutting down my Syringa Wireless phone seemed like the end of an age of innocence. We couldn’t beat Goliath. I felt like some sort of lemming being pushed towards an inevitable fate being stuck with a new big provider that would never care to know anything about me beyond my credit card number. I will miss you, Syringa Wireless. You were my first phone. (OK, so I toyed with Cricket back in 2001, but we were never serious.)

About Brigham Griffin
Brigham Griffin, Marketing Director for Direct Communications, resides in rural Idaho, and has been with the company since 2005. Brigham has an MBA from the University of Utah, and a BA in Communications from Brigham Young University. He also serves as an adjunct professor of marketing at Idaho State University.

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