Live from CES: New Plays in MVNOs

MVNOs, or “Mobile Virtual Network Operators,” are essentially marketing companies who license bandwidth from a carrier, and then launch a branded service. The players getting the most press recently—and doing the most advertising—have been Amp’d and Helio: both of which have built up a deep bench of content partnerships, and focus primarily on mobile entertainment applications (i.e., video, audio, gaming, social networking, etc.).

Searching for new ways to play in the space—and, in part, to avoid the large capital outlay involved in getting a mobile entertainment concern going—a new crop of targeted MVNOs has begun to emerge. I found a couple of interesting approaches here at CES, which might just work.

But before that, Amp’d. They’ve had a busy start to the New Year, with two big announcements strategically timed for CES: 100,000 users and three new social networking deals. For starters, Amp’d said yesterday that it has finally hit six figures in terms of subscribers, boasting a healthy 70,000 new sign-ups in the fourth quarter alone. With an ARPU—more cell-speak for “average revenue per user”—of over $100 per month, this big-spending MVNO looks to be on the path toward profitability. CEO Peter Adderton predicts 700,000 subscribers by 2008, which assumes 25,000 new customers every month.

What might help fuel some of this growth is Amp’d’s new trifecta of social networking deals with Facebook, Freewebs, and Livejournal. Their approach has been dubbed “social network agnostic,” and diverges from the exclusive deals signed by competitors like Helio. My take is that this is a savvy move, given that users are often divided between MySpace, Facebook, and smaller sites, and also that some of the exclusivity Helio initially paid for is breaking down (e.g., Cingluar inking their own deal with MySpace for a custom interface).

Now on to the new stuff. One MVNO that caught my eye here at CES is JOLT! Mobile, which leverages the prepaid model that Virgin, Boost Mobile, and TracFone have found so successful. (Pay-as-you-go plans allow for better visibility into the revenue cycle for carriers, and earn a premium on talk-time costs, often up to $0.25 per minute). Where JOLT! differs from its better-heeled competitors, however, is in the area of international calls—which is where I see the real value: This service offers unlimited international calling for the same price as a domestic call. For just under $0.15 a minute, you can talk with family in Hungary and friends in Hong Kong.

There are a couple of restrictions, such as scaling prices based on the number of purchased minutes (e.g., $0.19 per minute for a $30 prepay) and expiration dates on those minutes (45 days for the $30 plan). But this is a great value for the younger demo with no credit or poor credit, and especially attractive to recently immigrated users. Marketers might find some good value here in looking toward sponsorship deals, or perhaps an ad-supported pricing program, which might help subsidize some of the per-minute costs.

Also, there’s a nifty little new mobile service for parents with young children, called “TicTalkTrack.” It’s a GPS-enabled handset with advanced parental controls (such as alerts, feature locks, etc.) that gives kids the safety of having a phone in hand, but without giving them too much rope. The service uses the same prepaid model as JOLT!, and features pre-loaded games and a robust Web interface for phone management.

Look for more niche plays like this as the mobile market continues to grow and mature. Soon, we might just have an MVNO lineup here in the U.S. that starts to look something like the crowded landscape in Europe.