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.