MVNO shake-out begins, trend toward MVNO-lite

The MVNO story of 2006 is undoubtedly Mobile ESPN bailing out as the going got tough--but 2006 also marked the launch of most MVNOs too: Amp'd, Helio, XE Mobile and, yes, the MVNO previously known as ESPN Mobile. The biggest barrier for MVNOs proved to be distribution, just as we've been saying all along. Sure, you've got a website, but that's not going to move those phones en masse. MVNOs, actual carriers and handset designers alike realized during the past year that mobile phones are a consumer electronic product, which is something the CE guys have been saying for some time now. The RAZR may be the best example, but MVNOs should be aggressively pushing funky handset designs and innovations. 

While everyone is dabbling in mobile entertainment, MVNOs like Amp'd and Helio are hawking mobile payment services and Helio looks to be the first out of the gate with a fixed-mobile convergence service. Disney Mobile announced their LBS family locator service and weeks later the big carriers did the same. An MVNO that tries to be on the bleeding edge of next-gen services, however, can easily be trumped by their network provider should such a service prove popular. So, once again it all goes back to branding.

mPortal CEO DP Venkatesh thinks the "N" in MVNO is already on the way out: 2006 was all about MVNOs, where the brands only wanted the carriers for the networks, and on the other side you have a brand like Nascar who could slap their name on a phone and help move product and subscriptions that way. Currently, the MVNO market is moving into the middle away from the MVNO and beefing up the "brand slap" on some mobile phones to a middle ground of a branded handset preloaded with some applications and services but running on a traditional carrier's network. Just picture the rumored Google phone: A Google logo on the handset and it comes preloaded with all the widgets and apps Google develops: Maps, various Search applications, YouTube and more. Is that just another way of suggesting the slow death of the MVNO? Maybe. But once you take the "N" out of the phrase it becomes less of a black and white issue.