Monday, February 23, 2009

Time for a humbler, more focused, wireless wholesale market

The US MVNO market is the greatest missed opportunity I've seen in my wireless career, stretching back almost 20 years. Through carrier resistance and MVNO hubris, a business model that works very well in Europe and Asia has floundered here. Strong, focused MVNOs, which manage their costs and market excellently, improve services and value for wireless users in many places outside the US.

Yet there may be a light flickering in the US market. It's been several years since the meltdowns of Amp'd, Disney Mobile, ESPN and other high-profile players. The iPhone and its imitators have demonstrated the value of a (relatively) open architecture and application environment. And the carriers are still no better at rolling out truly innovative services than they have been.

Plus, nationwide carriers #3 & 4 (Sprint & T-Mobile) trail far behind the leaders in market share. This creates a strategic scenario where a customer acquired by a Sprint or T-Mobile reseller is relatively unlikely to poach the direct business of the wholesaler (and in Sprint's case, they should welcome retaining customers by any means, even if they are transferred to an affiliated wholesaler). Therefore, the perceived opportunity cost of a full-on push into wholesale by these carriers is lower.

Who will be tomorrow's resellers? Those that are laser-focused on markets unserved by the carriers. They will be smaller but profitable, with excellent, low-cost distribution channels. They will be true innovators, bringing high-value applications to their customers. They will have customer bases who purchase phones without subsidies. They will be able to create win-win agreements with the wholesalers.

In a perfect world, a Sprint & T-Mobile push will force AT&T and Verizon to re-enter the wholesale market. Then there will be a strong, vibrant, competitive market where resellers will have some control of their destiny.

And the biggest winner of all will be... the customer. You and I.

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