TING becomes first LTE MVNO
Last week Ting became the first MVNO off a LTE network in the United States. Ting, a mobile services reseller from the stables of Tucows, web hosting company moved quickly to take the plunge with Sprint, as the latter begins to expand its LTE footprint in the US. While LTE activity has revved up a lot of dust, it is important to note the change in the ways MVNOs are perceived by US tier-1 players. Unlike couple of years ago, MVNOs no longer have to deal with old phones and devices on old networks but may now compete head to head with their parent carriers carrying contemporary devices as well as the hosts.
This brings to the fore, couple of things: perhaps large tier-1 wireless players are beginning to feel that their ability to match the flexibility in pricing, plans, bundles and turn around innovative packages for specific customer tiers, is somewhat limited. If you look at the flexibility available on Ting's Small and Medium Business customer offerings for example, this becomes apparent (grouping of minutes, messages, bandwidth across multiple devices, move out unused messages into the next month, self care and several others).
The power of the device and the capacity of the network are admittedly the big factors for success in 4G, but perhaps the carrier is limited in its ability to meet the myriad needs of the dozens of customer tiers' then the operator is left in the lurch. A strong MVNO player can bring in the necessity levels of flexibility and make compelling offers to variety of customers.
But how easy is it for a MVNO to manage infrastructure as Mobile network partners migrate from 3G to 4G?
Traditionally the MVNO has to manage its billing and pre-paid infrastructure (in most cases) by interfacing with core network components of the mobile network operator whose minutes and bandwidth it resells. As mobile network operators move to 4G LTE, their Radio access and several core network elements migrate to support 3GPP LTE standard protocols. 3GPP specified 4G core is vastly different from the 3G core architecture and is built around the Diameter signaling protocol to enable large scale signaling and media traffic envisaged by 4G devices. Thus the MVNO which was so far supporting SS7 protocols such as CAMEL, SOAP, WIN, GSM MAP is now required to support Diameter protocols such as S6a, S6d, S13, S13', Gy, Ro and others.
The risk of not supporting these new signaling protocols for the MVNO is to get unplugged from the business and lose customers. To continue to provide services to its customers, the MVNO can simply procure protocol inter-working functions such as those developed by signaling specialist houses such as Diametriq and ensure they continue working with the Mobile network operator. This ensures the MVNO stays in business and continues to benefit from the new demand for high speed data services over LTE.
While the Indian scenario has so far averted the MVNO onslaught by various regulatory barriers (except for Virgin, which ran its business with Tata for about two years), the MVNO is an excellent marketing extension to a typical mobile carrier. Perhaps once the current policy fiasco is sorted out and industry gains some direction, India should relook at the MVNO opportunity and allow the market to develop its own in-country variants: how about AMUL data-only MVNO for a change?
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Sridhar Pai runs Tonse Telecom, a Bengaluru-based telecom research and consulting house that is a research partner to Light Reading India.