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Sami Gharres asks where will the differentiation come from in the mobile market?

September 2017 marks an important 10th anniversary. As everyone knows, the first iPhone was announced in January 2007 and officially launched in June 2017. So what happened in September 2007?

The answer is that on 18 September 2007, “Apple and O2 announced that O2, the leading wireless carrier in the UK, will be the exclusive UK carrier for Apple’s revolutionary iPhone when it makes its debut in the UK on November 9”. Why is this important I hear you ask? Well, for me, that was the last time I saw a MNO come up with a compelling offer that no one else had or could equal!

Ten years ago there were reports of people sleeping outside the Apple store and O2 shops. They were terminating their contracts with their existing providers, paying up the months left over, just so they could move to O2 and get hold of a shiny and totally untested piece of kit that was not even 3G compatible.

The only innovations since then was when 3 UK for a brief moment offered unlimited data. But this was quickly withdrawn due to over subscription. Unlimited voice minutes and SMS were a novelty for a short time, and then became the norm. Nothing much has happened since.

I remember looking at the first specs of LTE and talking to the engineers who toiled to specify all these amazing QoS control features that could underpin a plethora of new products and features and open up whole new rich revenue streams and user experiences. Seven years later we have only just got VoLTE to work and the only thing a product genius in an MNO could come up with was a 4G-enabled action cam to broadcast your life straight to the internet. Someone once said that there is a very fine line between madness and genius, I think you can all safely guess which category the 4G-enabled camera fits in.

As someone who worked in the engine room of telecoms since 1996 and saw the technology move from electromechanical switches to 4G, it pains me to see that while technology is alive and kicking, innovation in the mobile market seems to be in stuck in a vegetative state. The reasons are many and I’m not about to delve into those murky waters. Instead I’m going to focus on the silver lining.

Faced with crippling debts spent on building expensive dumb pipes carrying OTT traffic, MNOs are suddenly a little less hostile to MVNOs and a little more willing to do business with them. After all, some easy cash is better than no cash at all. Not enough to generate the profits of the late nineties and early noughties, but enough to service the debts and maintain the networks.

But here’s the exiting thing about MVNOs. They don’t have to follow the telco model. They can be agile and entrepreneurial. They can break the mould and be inventive and innovative. Although Darwin never actually said it, the point remains true that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. Tiny mammals did evolve to dominate a planet once ruled by dinosaurs. A point that MVNOs should take heart from.