As the cable industry scrambles to match telcos’ growing quadruple play of voice, video, data and wireless, the acronym MVNO—mobile virtual network operator—rolls off more cable tech tongues. An MVNO purchases wholesale blocks of minutes from a mobile network operator (MNO) and repurposes them under its own brand. The MVNO can handle almost all the back-office functionality, including billing, provisioning, providing phones and customer care, or let a mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE) take care of that grunt work. The MNO simply provides the minutes. Control: An Issue It’s not altogether certain that cable can become an MVNO because, with the exception of cable-friendly Sprint, most wireless providers will not sell wholesale minutes to what they perceive as competition. Even Sprint is wary because their demographics are competitive, and a cable operator could actually pull subscribers away. It’s likely that for cable operators to become MVNOs some new form of cooperation with wireless providers holding more power must happen. And the cable industry abhors relinquishing control. Cable could also resell a mobile service offered by a programmer like ESPN or Disney. In this case, an MSO could become either the MVNE or just package the wireless service like it’s another video offering. That’s a low-margin deal, but it does get cable into the wireless space. Becoming an MVNO is “not very appealing; it’s a tough nut to crack,” said William Markey, president and general manager of the RelevantC consulting firm. “Cable likes control, and wireless is the type of technology where you’d want control. You want to own as much as you can of that call path and ensure quality of service and reliability.” Many niches, one (main) partner Even becoming an MVNE or MVNO reseller doesn’t guarantee cable a wireless play because the MNOs remember the CLEC debacle their wireline brethren experienced. As long as the MVNO sticks to a niche market like the Hispanic-based Motiva or sports-centric ESPN or even prepaid giant Virgin Mobile, the MNOs will deal, said Ron Angner, principal and vice president of OSS and wireless practices at TMNG (The Network Management Group), which is proposing itself as an MVNE. “They do not see it as a threat yet,” he said. “They don’t see it as a conflict. They look at it as a way to offload some of their excess network capacity and get some dollars while they’re doing it.” If, however, subscribers start drifting away, the MNOs will back off, and there aren’t that many of them in the first place. “One important thing to understand … in North America there really is only one MVNO option,” said Markey. “Sprint (which has been trialing with Time Warner in Kansas City) is really the only potential partner.” That being said, being an MVNO does have its attraction. “It is not capital intensive; it’s an op-ex exercise, and you can start tomorrow—if Sprint’s willing,” he concluded. (For more on MVNO activity, see this issue’s Weekly Erlang.) – Jim Barthold

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