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Ting isn’t just supporting Sprint phones, it’s hinting at a much freer device market

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Ting, the innovative mobile virtual network operator that offers pay-for-what-you-use shared plans, is expanding it mobile phone options. Instead of buying a device directly from Ting, the company will roll out a BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, phone option in the last quarter of this year. Supported devices have to work on Sprint’s (s s) network — which Ting uses to provide its services — although in a blog post announcing the details, Ting opens up the possibility of supporting phones from other carriers.

Consumers that have a Windows Phone (s msft) or Android (s goog) device compatible with Sprint’s network can make the move. Why would they when Sprint’s plans offer unlimited data, seen as the holy grail for smartphones? Not every Sprint customer needs or wants to pay for unlimited data when they can get by on a less expensive plan. Ting could fit the bill, so to speak, with its consumer-friendly rates and no contracts. Customers pick a plan based on needs, but are only charged for what they use. If usage for a billing cycle was actually in a lower plan tier, Ting charges the lower rate.

This is just the first step

The BYOD movement doesn’t surprise me, and I think its a progressive move by Ting. What’s more intriging to me is that Ting is pushing for a cellular model that the U.S. has never supported: The ability to use any phone on the carrier of your choice. Here’s the tip-off from Ting’s blog post, emphasis mine.

“Before we dive in to the details on our upcoming BYOD plan, we want to manage some expectations. First, we’ll only be able to do BYOD for devices that work on the Sprint network initially [CLARIFICATION: and both Boost and Virgin mobile devices are excluded]. That said, this is a vital first step toward a more fluid mobile world where devices can move between carriers. We’ll continue to push. Second, this is not a backdoor to get the iPhone on Ting. BlackBerry, push to talk (PTT) and a small list of specific handsets won’t be BYODable (hey, it’s a word now). At least not immediately.”

That could mean even more innovation from Ting in the future if it can provide access to other cellular frequencies and technologies through additional wholesale agreements. As an example of this progressive thinking: Venko builds phones for the Brazil telecom market that can switch between four carriers, choosing the cheapest one for each individual call, per the Economist. Brazil is more of an ideal world for this type of phone flexibility, however, as most of its carriers have all settled on GSM technology in the 900/1800 MHz bands. Here in the U.S. we really don’t have true competition between carriers because of the different technologies and frequencies used. So for now, with a few rare exceptions, we can’t easily take phones from one network to another.

I wonder if Ting is considering the bigger picture opportunity and future where we can do that in the U.S. It certainly appears to be so based on the company’s blog posts. Are there technical challenges to overcome? With the various frequencies and bands that each carrier has to use, absolutely. Even LTE in the 700 MHz band is split up between Verizon(s vz)(s vod) and AT&T(s t); their respective LTE devices won’t work on the other’s network.

Who will bring phone freedom? Not the large carriers.

Samsung Galaxy NexusThe truth is: None of the big four U.S. carriers have any incentive to push an agenda of “buy one phone and use it on the network of your choice”. In fact, they have a disincentive to do so because their shareholders expect continued subscriber growth and a rise in the average revenue per user. Opening up the floodgates of network choice would only lower both of those metrics, all things being equal.

But perhaps some outside the box thinking from Ting could be in the cards to upset the apple cart. Say, a phone that Ting asks Samsung or Motorola to build with support for multiple network frequencies. A solution like this isn’t unheard of: My Samsung Galaxy Nexus supports five different ones, allowing me to use it on either T-Mobile or AT&T, depending on the SIM card I insert. Sure, it’s a long shot, but it has more of a chance than hoping for one of the major carriers to take up the freedom of network choice flag.

So if any company can succeed in bringing mobile network choice to the U.S. it’s going to be a company such as Ting. It could buy wholesale service from multiple network providers and find or get hardware to take advantage of such arrangements. Given the flexibility of Ting’s plans that vary based on actual usage, my money is on Ting to make it happen — if anyone can — even in some small way, such as using Verizon phones on the Ting network. In that case, Ting won’t just be a traditional virtual network operator; it would create a virtual network from various operators, brining more flexibility to U.S. consumers.

It’s challenging, but there’s an opportunity here

We asked Ting about the idea of phones from other networks and got the following response:

“It depends on the device. We have been hacking away at this ourselves. We have not been unable to unlock most Verizon devices so far. We have had success with some. Again, this will have a lot to do with Sprint’s initiatives and efforts. And reciprocal arrangements (or retaliations) between Sprint and Verizon. But we think it should be possible for a lot of devices.”

The window of opportunity isn’t completely closed then and it sounds like Ting is at least considering a future of possibilities. And at our Mobilize event next month, we have a full panel dedicated to the MVNO model and how these virtual cellular companies are gaining momentum in the U.S. We’ll be sure to discuss this and other related topics specific to the MVNO market.

10 Responses to “Ting isn’t just supporting Sprint phones, it’s hinting at a much freer device market”

  1. One big advantage of Ting over Virgin or Boost (both on the Sprint network) is free voice roaming in my opinion. Sprints coverage is very weak in rural areas across the midwest.

  2. ssj4Gogeta

    In my country India, ALL the GSM carriers use the same frequencies (1900/2100 MHz). Also, you pretty much HAVE to buy unlocked off-contract phones, because hardly any carrier subsidizes phones. This creates a very open market – I can use multiple SIMs and use them as needed. I use prepaid, so I can switch carriers whenever I wish. Carriers have even more incentive to continue to provide cheap, better services because anyone can switch whenever they feel like.

  3. Dave Wright

    Kevin, good story on Ting. As far as promoting the BYOD/BYOP model, I was surprised that you didn’t mention StraightTalk. They’ve been offering a SIM-only BYOP plan since early 2011. Many folks are using it with unlocked or out-of-contract AT&T iPhones as well as all kinds of Android handsets.

    I’m glad Ting is heading this way, but ST has been doing it for a while. It does make you wonder whether ATT and VZW will eventually close the door on MVNOs like this if they gain too much share. I’d keep an eye on America Movil, I suspect they won’t be satisfied as just an MVNO. Next possible bidder on T-Mo?

  4. Tsahi Levent-Levi

    MVNOs are definitely going to be interesting in 2013.
    While Ting is innovating on price plans others are innovating by offering added value services not related directly to voice, SMS and data:

  5. I get this, but, let me throw something out there. I own a penta-band GSM mobile made by Nokia. My choice for network is any GSM provider, pre- and post-paid. Given the latest FCC report on coverage, that nails me in pretty good places for just about anything except LTE (my mobile does HSPA/3.5G on every GSM frequency). To that end, I have choice.

    In similar, I could play with any of VZW’s world phones, and given some hackery, have it work on just about any provider.

    I get the issue. But, the problem isn’t so much that carriers won’t move, it’s that we as techies aren’t making the right call for what to put in front of folks as the best solution. If choice is the best approach, our recommendations and use cases should fall in that vein, not necessarily in the vein of making something popular.

  6. I don’t think this company has any mainstream appeal and it doesn’t really offer ‘carrier’ freedom at all. You still have to use Sprint’s network, granted your not bogged down by a contract, but their rates are aligned with other carrier’s ‘no contract’ data rates and are not a good deal at all. Sure, 3000 of anything seems like a lot but that’s less than 3GB for $60/month, that’s not much different from Verizon or Sprint. So what’s the point?

    The only appeal i can see is for a minority of people who anally monitor their data/voice usage each month and also use very little of either service.

    That said, the only Data option that seems worth while is the $3 option b/c, well, its $3.. and perfect for anyone who checks email once or twice a week. The fact that the price goes up by over 400% for 400MB more is ridiculous (but again, also in line with current carrier data rates). To me, this seems like another communications company doing the same thing as the other carriers but allowing more flexibility with the plans mixing plan details.

    The problem is, since the FCC has no power over wireless to enforce net neutrality, aka ‘dumb pipes’, this service will be quashed within a few years as the carriers continue to expand their power over their customers and the government. Or at the very least, it will never be able to expand beyond Sprint’s network..

  7. keninca

    “None of the big four U.S. carriers have any incentive to push an agenda of “buy one phone and use it on the network of your choice”.”

    I disagree. If a carrier chose to compete based on the performance and service they delivered, they could be more profitable than they are with their current exclusivity-driven model. If they had a plan to totally satisfy the customer, instead of playing gotcha with fine print and kafkaesque service plans, they would draw customers like honey draws flies (and people).

    The management philosophy that pervades the communications service industry (and most others) relies on stifling competition, minimizing value and maximizing revenue, with no concern about customer happiness. Apple has proven that happy customers create monster profits, and almost any other company that sells to consumers can replicate some of that success by focusing on what makes people happy, rather than how to extract every nickel they can from them.

    • Great points, but my thought is: If they wanted to do so, they would have already tried to do so. Even with LTE they’re going with a silo approach because they’re raking in billions under the current model. Selling the idea of “let’s compete solely on performance and service” wouldn’t likely sit well with shareholders; at least I don’t think so, given the current revenue streams.

      • keninca

        Kevin, your point about shareholders not liking that approach is true, but they need management willing to take that chance – they would probably get a couple years to prove it, and they should be able to succeed in that time frame.

        I’m not holding my breath, though.