D’Amp’D & The Troubles Awaiting MVNOs

For past few days I have been trying to nail down the details of the comings and goings at the much hyped, Amp’d MVNO. My sources last week had informed me that one of their most senior executives, Don McGuire, senior vice president of marketing had quit the company along with another senior executive. After some nagging, company’s PR folks said that, “Don McGuire has left Amp’d for personal reasons and is pursuing other endeavors.” This comes closely on the heels of a controversial ad campaign which well… in in poor taste.

These departures were only two of the “revolving door” of executives at the company that recently raised about $67 million. MocoNews says that a lot of resumes are flying out to executive recruiters. Amongst others who have departed include Stefanie Henning, former head of the Music and Entertainment Group who is now at Fox. Steve Stanford was one of the first to leave and is now the CEO of ultra-deluxe MVNO, Voce Wireless.

And if that was not enough, as per MoCoNews, Sue Swenson, who was the former COO at T-Mobile USA will have trouble joining the company, thanks to an injunction granted to T-Mobile by a Seattle judge. This cannot be good news for investors like Redpoint Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and Columbia Capital who pumped in the dollars into this company.

The trials and tribulations of Amp’d are symptomatic of the whole MVNO business. Some venture capitalists in private have been fretting about the rising number of MVNO business plans. It is hard to imagine how three MVNOs – Amp’d, Helio and ESPN – will actively (and profitably) compete for essentially the same demographic – the hip and rich young people. In a column earlier this year, Matt Maier of Business 2.0 wrote:

All successful MVNOs require one of two things: They need to serve a well-defined, unserved market — the youth demographic, in Virgin’s case — or they need to target riskier customers whom the national carriers refuse to serve because of poor credit or no credit history. When a carrier like Verizon Wireless or Sprint decides to lease its network to a third party to set up an MVNO, it’s doing so because it wants to reach markets it could not otherwise touch.

Many look at the success of Virgin Mobile (never mind the fact that they had to give up a stake in the company to Best Buy to get shelf space and Sprint to play nice) and Boost Mobile, and believe that lightening will strike, not twice but many times. Not quite possible, but then…I am just wondering how will the the MVNO market reach $10.7 billion by 2010 as predicted by The Yankee Group.

I also wonder if MVNOs take such a big portion of the pie out of the revenues of cellphone carriers, who are totally beholden to Wall Street, how long before the axe falls. A very smart man, whose infinite wisdom I tap when flummoxed, tells me that already, “margin (and hence price) pressures are continuing to increase exactly in line with the ‘madness’ to which you refer.”

Sky Dayton, the chief executive of Helio, which has substantially deep pockets told me that in the MVNO game, the table stakes are at least half a billion dollars. Much of the money will go to the handset makers, the parent carriers, and well the advertising agencies and other businesses that feed off consumer-centric services. The bills will go to the private equity investors, venture capitalists, and well in the end the citizens who fund pension funds. You know how the milk is churned.

Iain Gilliot, a smart man who runs his own research firm, in a recent report to his clients wrote: MVNO: CLEC of the New Millennium? D’Amp’d might just be the first one of them!

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