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Every now and again I return to the subject of the term – MVNO. It continues to decay at the edges and yet somehow remains. I’ve tried at various times to drop the M, but it stubbornly refuses to budge.

Shouldn’t we by now be less defined by networks and more by services, business models, pricing, customer experience and so on? And why is there still such a hard line between fixed and mobile resellers?

The problem is that as an industry we feel the need to differentiate between the haves and the have-nots – in this case not revenues, profits or customers but simply networks. And for some, having that all-important mobile network seems paramount. I’ve had hilarious conversations with fixed line folk who disparage the idea that mobile is even a ‘proper’ network – it’s just an access method they say devastatingly, which wouldn’t work without us they point out wryly.

And in the day and age where all networks are becoming software-driven, and there’s an increasing separation between network and service layers, aren’t all operators rapidly becoming virtual?

What’s the most aging about the term is the idea that mobile is special, or that there is a clear idea what it is any more. There are so many variants of mobile these days and, in the era of multi-service operation, we have operators able to blend between cellular services and WiFi, for example. Which is always the problem with trying to assign things into boxes – all too often things stubbornly refuse to be categorised. How do we categorise something like Google Fi, for example, which uses mobile and WiFi at will.

Take the UK’s Gamma, for example, it used to sell fixed services, and recently launched as an MVNO. But to Gamma surely all of this is just…connectivity. And connectivity for its business customers in any shape or form they need and are willing to pay for.

Not satisfied with separating out the MVNOs, we further sub-divide the market into those owned or not owned by a network operator. And here it is also messy – in the form of joint ventures between operators and non-telco companies.

And then we cut the market again in terms of how thick or thin the MVNO is. ie how much technology they deploy. As if the customer cares about that.

In another way of looking at the market we try and put the MVNOs into buckets – the GSMA has a classification system which is as good as any, but it still ends up trying to compare peaches, plums and nectarines. It’s an attempt at putting a grid on a world that doesn’t respect hard lines but is blending and morphing, refusing to be categorized.

The GSMA, for example, differentiates between Discount MVNOs, Telecoms MVNOs, Media MVNOs, Migrant MVNOs, Retail MVNOs, Business MVNOs, Roaming MVNOs and M2M MVNOs. But is Virgin a media or telecoms firm? And is Tesco Mobile a discounter or a retail MVNO? And isn’t M2M/IoT just another business service at the end of the day? While all of these elements are useful to describe the market they are not exclusive boxes within which we can place the industry. If we used them to plot a positioning for an MVNO that might be more accurate.

The truth is that at heart MVNOs are simply digital businesses who offer a range of services to their customers. The access method of how they deliver these services (via a wholesale agreement) is one of the features of their business, but it should never be the overriding feature. No customer buys from an MVNO because it’s an MVNO. Customers have no concept of who owns the network, and studies have shown they rate network quality as different between the network itself and the MVNOs hosted on it (usually in favour of the MVNO). Which indicates yet again how quality of service (QoS) is an odd fish in itself, which is not just about absolute quality but involves customer perception.

In summary the term is too network-centric, too mobile-specific, not customer-friendly,  and not reflective of the world today. The problem is what do we call the industry? Of course, we always have the option of recreating the acronym. I prefer to think that MVNO stands for “Many Varied and New Opportunities”. What about you?

How can MVNOs differentiate their offering?

Tesco Mobile beats all UK MNOs when it comes to complaints

MVNO market – Q1 2017 update