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Now roll your own MVNO

How many virtual mobile operators does the world need? Ask Juha Christensen, former head of Microsoft’s mobile division and a founder of Symbian, and his answer would be: as many as you can think of.

Christensen has a new start-up, Sonopia, that has put together a back-end platform that allows anyone to become a mobile operator. “Think of it as MVNO as web service,” says Christensen.

With $9 million in venture funding from ComVentures and Sevin Rosen Funds, Menlo Park, Calif.-based Sonopia is going after what Christensen describes as affinity groups – little league teams, universities, non-profit groups, and even niche brands.

During our chat with Christensen, we learnt that the entire platform was built by an engineering team based in Kiev, Ukraine. “About 75% of our total employees.” Christensen expects that Sonopia will power 10,000 or so “mobile operators” by 2009. Well, given that the traditional MVNO model has run into serious headwinds, one has to give Christensen points for trying something new. (My inner cynic thinks of this as MVNO-meets-Web 2.0)

Sonopia is not doing anything unique – the only uniqueness is that it is applying what others have done before to the wireless market. Credit card companies, for example, create bespoke cards for sports teams or luxury stores. Some of the groups that have already teamed up with Sonopia include the National Wildlife Federation, the Long Island Ducks (minor leage baseball), the Chicago Bandits (softball) and the American Medical Student Association.

Sonopia provides a platform which allows the various groups to select from a wide variety of phones, then allows them to customize the content and user interface. Social media tools such as blogging and photo sharing are going to be part of the platforms. The affinity groups can go to a website and follow the instructions and quickly set up a MVNO. A non-profit, for instance, can upload its list of supporters and try and convince them to switch to their “own” mobile service.

The support and services organization is shared amongst the different groups. The subscriber revenues are shared between the carrier, Sonopia and the affinity groups. If this twist on MVNO works, then the big winner will be Verizon Wireless, which is providing wholesale minutes to Sonopia.

12 Responses to “Now roll your own MVNO”

  1. Hi,

    Any ideas on how i could go about selling an idea to a mobile phone company or mvno? I would have liked to set up an mvno myself, but the costs are way out of my league.

    As for sonopia, it doesn’t allow enough freedom in tarrif set-up (actually i’m not sure if they let you set your own tarrifs or just choose from a set of tariffs).

    Any ideas on how much it costs to set-up a mvno providing the same service (no additional features than that of the parent network)?

    Thanks,

    Rehan

  2. I’m more interested to see how rosy the interaction will be with member organizations who must hand over some brand control in the form of back-end billing and CS. While Sonopia handles these functions, it will be the brands themselves who will ultimately be on the hook for any issues.

    The Kiev part explains my other thought, which was that $9m in VC would not take this rollout very far beyond the current point.

  3. Just to clarify, I don’t think the business model is unique at all. What you are describing is called a MVNE – Mobile Virtual Network Enabler. Such have existed for many years, at least in Europe and probably the US too.

    Sample companies can be found here
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MVNE
    http://www.mobilein.com/what_is_a_mvne.htm

    For example, check out Martin Dawes Systems in the UK: http://www.martindawessystems.com/

    The difference I can see is that Sonopia is targeting “micro-operators” while the traditional MVNE are mostly aiming for regional or country-wide customers.

    Personally, I think it may be stretching brand equity too far in many cases. There are few organizations I would like to sponsor to that extent unless they have the lowest prices already.

    However, there are MVNOs that are doing well leveraging very loyal fan groups, e.g. soccer teams, or brands with a high degree of trust, e.g. super market chains.

    Perhaps churches could a good customer segment in the US?

  4. Sounds like a decent enough of an idea perhaps, but wow, does their website ever leave a lot to be desired! Do they expect that the average user viewing the site would have the foggiest idea what the service is all about? Based upon the information presented there most folks would assume that it is some sort of additional social networking feature you add to your existing phone service. There is no mention of the phones themselves, prices or contracts before they start collecting personal information? Hmmm …

    It would be tempting to build some sort of multi-level marketing scheme around this though. :)

  5. Clearly this can be called for a culmination of virtual mobile operators with the Web2.0, and Sonopia being the initiator and the early mover, will benefit! The best part being any individual withing a group, can do a lot of customization for content and user interface which is the need of the hour.
    I would really love to give my cheers to them.

    Well, I see that this will result in many more MVNO’s with web service.

    Now its upto the user’s and telephone operator to decide how to take advantage of all this.

    Pamela.