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Is 2013 the Year of the MVNO?

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straighttalk

For 50 a month, get all the Text/Calls you can

For the past 8 months, I’ve been using different versions of MVNOs. MVNOs are mobile virtual network operators, they run on top of traditional wireless carriers, providing access for a fraction of the typical mobile network costs. MVNOs come in many different varieties, from Wal-Mart’s Straight Talk to T-Mobile’s Solavei. My experiments with these have led me to the following conclusions;

  • traditional mobile network services are overblown and a waste of money
  • CDMA networks (Sprint/Verizon) are a waste of money
  • the booming second-hand smartphone market combined with the way Google is selling Android smartphones provides freedom from traditional contract schemes
  • MVNO’s are smarter than regular operators, they provide incentives and flexibility
  • there is a difference in service between AT&T/Verizon, Sprint/T-Mobile and then MVNOs (and you pay for it)
  • a dedication to MVNOs requires some hard work, it requires some technological know how but it’s not impossible
boostmobile

Boost operates on Sprint’s networks

So why might this year be the year of the MVNO?

Assertion 1: traditional mobile network services are overblown and a waste of money - Traditional mobile networks in the US require a commitment of $80-100 a month, to start. You pay for data, minutes and text messages, often a fee for each service. Carriers do not give you a break for underusing, but will charge you an arm and a leg for any overages. While T-Mobile and Sprint will offer you “unlimited” for around $80, their service is somewhat lacking, AT&T and Verizon no longer have any unlimited plans, and charge a ton for data, and a criminal amount for SMS.

Assertion 2: CDMA networks (Sprint/Verizon) are a waste of money - These networks use proprietary coding, so that the smartphones can only be used on their networks. If you only have CDMA (not 4G LTE) your data speeds are incredibly poor, and battery life suffers due to technological limitations. This vendor lock in has forced people to stick to bad contracts, and bad service. Global networks are possible on CDMA smartphones, but you cannot just jump from provider to provider, or get services anywhere you choose. Yes, Verizon does offer 4G LTE, but I only believe you need those services for Streaming and Tethering, and not much else.

cricketAssertion 3: the booming second-hand smartphone market combined with the way Google is selling Android smartphones provides freedom from traditional contract schemes - You can find a used Galaxy Nexus GSM for around $200, a used Samsung Galaxy S3 for $300 and an iPhone 4S for the same price. Google is selling the best smartphone for $299/349 right now (when they are available). It is no longer a requirement to get contract reduced prices to get a good phone, but if you are willing to tinker, you will get the latest and greatest capabilities. Purchasing a subsidized/contract type phone just is not worth it anymore, the benefits do not out weigh the cost of being on a contract.

Assertion 4: MVNO’s are smarter than regular operators, they provide incentives and flexibility - Most MVNOs have a variety of ways in which the operate. One, gives you credits for adding other users, another, lets you add things such as tethering. They can be used for only a few days a month, or in one lump fee for the year (with a savings tacked on). T-Mobile even allows you to take out insurance on your smartphone, on a pay as you go basis. By making you a part of the marketing and sales team, you can save yourself money (or make it!).solavei

Assertion 5: there is a difference in service between AT&T/Verizon, Sprint/T-Mobile and then MVNOs (and you pay for it) - You won’t have a store you can go into to get your phones to work, it’s unlikely you’ll have insurance, and there isn’t always quality customer service available. Most MVNOs offer zero roaming, because they only are attached to a single carrier. If you’re a rural user, this can ruin your experience. Similarly, if you have to have service all over, you are best off with AT&T/Verizon, if you need to save the money, Sprint/T-Mobile are decent, but if you are adventurous MVNOs can work, and work well. When you go the MVNO route, you take customer service into your own hands, with Google/Titter and more, you need it.

virginmobileAssertion 6: a dedication to MVNOs requires some hard work, it requires some technological know how but it’s not impossible - Pretty much any device can be activated on MVNOs, but only if you work at it. I had to put a fake IMEI into one service just to get a simcard. Sometimes you’re searching the internet for proper APNs, or just taking hours to get things going. It happens, but I’ve found it to be relatively worth it. I have used a variety of them (all on GSM variants) and think each one has its own merits.

So is it?

I think so, everyone has heard about Cricket or Boost Mobile, but there are variants for every carrier and (pretty much) every device. MVNOs offer the ability to make your own decisions about your smartphone carrier, and with the device you use most often, you should have flexibility.

How am I doing it?

Right now I’m on Solavei, you can find more details about it via this link, or you can just straight enroll via this one. Solavei is an MVNO that runs on T-Mobile, and gets true HSPA+ speeds (which do not quite rival 4GLTE, but are more than enough). The service is the same as T-Mobile, just without roaming. Is it the perfect solution, no, but it does allow me to cut in half a monthly bill that just was not cutting it.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments, or find me on Twitter, right here.

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.