Friday, June 08, 2012

Virgin Mobile gets the iPhone -- is the wireless oligopoly starting to fade?

AT&T has articulated its vision of a concentrated wireless market with few carriers that control a lot of spectrum. They foresee a gradual, controlled shift from voice minutes to all-data during the next few years, and hope to charge enough for that data to maintain carrier revenue and profit.

But one of those carriers, Sprint, seems to be doing something radical -- competing.

Sprint is competing by partnering with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that sell access to the Sprint network. Users have to buy their phones up front, without subsidy, but they get flexible, cheap voice and data plans in return. The MVNO gets less revenue per user than AT&T or Verizon charge, but I assmue they and Sprint are profiting or they would not do it.

The net result is that wireless is cheaper and customer bills more accurately reflect the fact that voice calls, text messages and data are all bits.

Since the user pays full price for a phone, the MVNOs do not require two year contracts, but they lock you in by insisting that you buy your phone from them -- you cannot bring your own. Phone portability should improve with market pressure and the widespread adoption of fourth generation cellular technology.

MVNO phone selection is limited, but that may be breaking down. Sprint recently picked up the iPhone and today they announced that Virgin Mobile, one of their MVNOs, would also get the iPhone. I suspect that eventually Sprint MVNOs will offer all Sprint phones.

Virgin is not Sprint's only MVNO. One, Ting, has effectively done away with the concept of tiered service -- you pay for what you use. Virgin and Ting are early, but there will be others. One that is in beta, Republic Wireless, hopes to charge even less by automatically substituting WiFi for cellular connectivity whenever possible.

AT&T has their ideal vision of the future, and I have mine -- the ability to own my own phone, use it on anyone's network and only pay for the bits I send and receive.