Home to fewer than 170,000 people, annually buffeted by tropical storms, and a trans-Pacific junction for undersea cables, the island of Guam represents one of the most unique market contexts in the telecommunications industry. It is culturally and politically a US territory, but sits a mere three and a half hour flight away from Tokyo and Manila; its user base is smaller than the population of Fort Collins, Colorado, but Guam’s telecommunications market is one of the most sophisticated in the world. It’s competitive too, with four mobile industry operators vying for a market share smaller than most others.
“This is a very unique territory to be operating in, due to both our geography and our identity as a US territory,” says Roderick Boss, CEO of DOCOMO PACIFIC. “Being in the US but so close to Asia gives us a big advantage that’s maybe disproportionate to our population size.”
Founded in 1991, DOCOMO PACIFIC is the biggest telecom operator in both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). As the only overseas subsidiary telecom operator of NTT DOCOMO, a leading Japanese mobile provider, DOCOMO PACIFIC brings a unique value proposition to a wholly unique market. We sat down with Boss to find out more about the strategies and values that have allowed the company to become the region’s leading telecom provider, and why Guam itself is the perfect test bed for NTT DOCOMO’s 5G ambitions.
According to Boss, Guam’s hyper-competitive market is one of the key drivers behind DOCOMO PACIFIC’s success. “We have a very competitive market here, and our position as the leading provider in the region is hard won,” he explains. “That competition is a driver behind a lot of the innovation that we do: we have to innovate in order to attract the business of this very sophisticated population. People want the latest devices, the best possible network quality, reliability and world class customer service - and we have to provide them with that.” Boss joined DOCOMO PACIFIC in the summer of 2018, a continuation of multiple decades of experience in the telecommunications sector. Even after years working in Japan, the Philipines and across the Pacific, he acknowledges that the opportunities and challenges that Guam and the CNMI present have required a unique adjustment. “Coming to this market definitely required an adjustment, compared to working for a telecommunications provider in a big market,” he reflects. “Here, we still need to provide everything that you’d expect from a world class telecom company, but it has to be the island version of that. That doesn’t mean lower quality or less technology, it’s just a different version.”
Sophistication at (island) scale
The unique combination of a sophisticated population that demands technological excellence, status as US territories, and small market scale make DOCOMO PACIFIC a uniquely valuable card in NTT DOCOMO’s hand. “There are a couple of reasons they’ve invested in us,” explains Boss. “Our proximity to Japan makes it very convenient, as well as the fact that we’re in touch with what’s going on in the US market; there’s a lot that we can learn from them and that they can learn from us.” Whereas NTT DOCOMO is a mobile-only provider, DOCOMO PACIFIC is a quad-play organisation, which provides a singular opportunity for its executives. “We’re tiny when you set us against the whole NTT DOCOMO world, but we have about six or seven executives at a time who come on a rotational basis from Japan to work here with us and learn how our full fixed service and mobile business works,” says Boss.
Sitting at the intersection of the Pacific, US and Asian markets, DOCOMO PACIFIC has access to a wealth of different cultures, perspectives and skill sets. “We have a very diverse organisation. We have people from all over Asia, from the local Chamorro population, a big Filipino population as well as distinct Korean and Japanese demographics. So, add to that all the military personnel that come and go and you have a very diverse and dynamic little island,” says Boss. “I feel like that diversity is a real strength in our operation. It allows for innovation and a very respectful environment. I think that’s something that DOCOMO PACIFIC puts a lot of value in.”
The other major benefit that DOCOMO PACIFIC’s secluded market provides is its role as an ideal test bed for leading-edge technologies. Around the world, the advent of 5G adoption is creating a revolution in the telecommunications industry. With implications that range from lightning fast, reliable digital communications, to a cornucopia of IoT and smart infrastructure applications, the next decade of digital communications are set to be defined by the rise of 5G. Early adopters and innovators in this space can expect to reap huge rewards.
The race for 5G
“We started our 5G journey more than two years ago,” notes Boss. “NTT DOCOMO was developing as a global leader of 5G innovation and we were talking to them very early on about the possibility of testing 5G capabilities in our market.” In February 2019, the company unveiled a new DOCOMO 5G Open lab at its headquarters in Tamuning, Guam. “NTT DOCOMO already had three other labs in Japan - in Tokyo, Okinawa and Osaka - and number four was their first international 5G lab, which was opened here,” explains Boss. The lab serves to complement DOCOMO’s Open Partner Program, which allows outside companies to partner with DOCOMO PACIFIC in order to test their 5G applications, equipment and new concepts at no cost.
However, the island’s fiercely competitive market quickly spurred DOCOMO PACIFIC on to greater heights of innovation. “A few weeks after the launch of our lab, one of our competitors held a big press conference to announce that they were going to commercially launch 5G in Guam and the CNMI by the end of 2019,” recalls Boss. “I kind of took that as a personal challenge. I said “if they’re going to launch before the end of the year, we’re not going to be beat.” DOCOMO PACIFIC launched its fixed network 5G services in Guam in October, and Boss explains that the company is set to follow up with a mobile 5G service in the near future. “We actually launched ahead of NTT DOCOMO in Japan,” he says. Given the early adoption stage of the technology, and the world class nature of DOCOMO PACIFIC’s extant 4G/LTE network - which he notes consistently achieves 70-80 mbps speeds - Boss explains that he isn’t planning to cover Guam’s entire 549 km² of land. Rather, DOCOMO PACIFIC has established three major hot spots in the island’s busiest villages. “The rest of that deployment schedule will be defined by the market and driven by demand, not the other way round,” he states.
A key driver of market demand for mobile 5G services will be the increased capability of widely available handsets. “Initially we’d been using an LG phone that uses the same frequency for 5G as Sprint’s network in the US, and we managed to get that ahead of schedule,” Boss explains. “Now, of course, Samsung’s S20 is 5G capable. This means we’re seeing a progression from one highly specialised handset, to having a very mainstream model of phone that’s 5G capable. For us, that really changed the game, because anyone with an S20 is going to be able to use 5G when they’re within one of our hot spots.”
Beyond flagship mobile devices, however, Boss notes that there’s an array of potential applications that are particularly suited to Guam’s needs. “Our geography makes us isolated, which can present limitations to our healthcare system. It’s hard to get a lot of specialist doctors to come all the way to this small island so, when people have something serious, they get on a plane to Tokyo, Manila or Hawaii,” he explains. The high speeds, reliability and low latency that 5G provides has far-reaching implications for delivering medical expertise to remote locations around the world. He also explains that, since Guam has a single university and one community college, the potential benefits of distance learning for the island are also substantive. However, he notes that both applications are principally based upon fixed 5G networks, and that the process of finding applications for 5G mobile that aren’t already being supported by the last generation of technology is an ongoing process.
“For me, there’s one major application for mobile 5G in Guam that I’m most excited about and that’s fiber replacement. If I can get internet speeds that are comparable to fiber without having to dig up the ground or drill holes in people’s walls, that’s a game changer.” Guam is located in what’s colloquially known as “Typhoon Alley”. Every year, some of the world’s most devastating storms sweep across the Pacific and break on the island. As a result, Boss explains that buildings on the island tend to be made of reinforced concrete. “In-building penetration is a big issue,” he says. “If I can use 5G to go into a neighbourhood and achieve fiber-like speeds through wireless, by dropping a tower near my users, that’s a significant game changer for our market.”
A vital ecosystem
Providing world-class services in a tiny market is an ambitious goal, and DOCOMO PACIFIC fully leverages its network of partner relationships to support its goal. “Our partnerships are incredibly important to us,” says Boss. “Because of our scale, we have limitations in the skills and knowhow that we can have inhouse. So we rely on our partners’ expertise and by having close working relationships, we can make their expertise our own. We have a long and close relationship with Nokia, which provides our network equipment. Another key partner is Commscope, who we’ve bought a number of products from over many years. We see the members of the companies we work with as members of our own team, so those relationships are incredibly important.”
The COVID-19 challenge
The ongoing global pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge for the modern enterprise. As countries around the world close their borders to travellers, and the global economy is forced into history’s biggest experiment with remote work, it falls to telecommunications providers to ensure that the world remains connected.
“Over the past five years, we’ve seen a big shift from voice to data. During the current COVID-19 pandemic we, along with telco operators all over the world, have seen a massive increase in our broadband business - about a 90% increase - and haven’t had any network throttling. We’ve been able to handle this spike because we’ve been making the transition to data for a long time,” explains Boss.
Guam went into lockdown in mid-March. “In our case, immediately following the first case of COVID-19 being diagnosed in Guam, we switched to a virtual work strategy across our entire company. Our call centre operations, for example, all went virtual within a two-day period. I was pretty proud of the team’s ability to do that,” says Boss. “Obviously, the ability to stay connected remotely is a service we sell to people, so we were in a good position to move to that very quickly.” In response to the pandemic’s effect on the region, DOCOMO PACIFIC has placed its customers first, waiving late fees, providing uncapped data to its customers and donating PPE to front liners in Guam and the CNMI.
Connecting to the future
“It’s an incredibly exciting time in the industry for us. We have a lot of really fun things that we’re doing,” enthuses Boss, reflecting on the fact that DOCOMO PACIFIC represents his first experience with the TV and broadcasting business. “The media and TV businesses are at an inflection point right now around the world. OTT broadcasters are seeing this phenomenal growth, creating their own content, and that’s driving this huge transformation.” In response to the rapid acceleration of OTT adoption and the proportional decline in traditional cable services, Boss is exploring ways for DOCOMO PACIFIC to once again thrive in response to market pressure and competition. “What I want is for those people to leave me for me. That means that I’m developing my own IPTV offering for people who are moving away from full-service cable. That’s something that we’re going to see launched here very soon and I’m really excited about it,” he says. “I’ve watched my cable business shrink, year-over-year, for some time. Rather than just wait and see what happens with that, I’m ready to be a player in this new market as well.”
From new technology, new strategies and constant competition to stay on top, to its inherent customer centricity, DOCOMO PACIFIC is a uniquely capable company that punches above its weight, operating in a market unlike any other. “I love this industry. It’s where new technology comes first, it’s incredibly competitive - and I love competition - and it’s fun to come to work everyday,” says Boss. “We’ve built a great team here at DOCOMO PACIFIC. We’re lucky to have a very supportive shareholder that allows us to do some things we might not otherwise be able to do. I’m very happy to have that and, looking at the future, I think it’s pretty bright.”