Prepaid MVNO space heats up; new entrants to test old guard

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The domestic mobile virtual network operator space has seen its ranks swell as a slightly delayed launch finally took shape and an unexpected retail chain has quietly jumped into the fray.

Having had its scheduled launch delayed last week due to a hack attack on its website, Voyager Mobile finally got off the ground with the unveiling of its prepaid model. The service, which runs over Sprint Nextel’s CDMA and Clearwire’s WiMAX networks, offers consumers unlimited voice and messaging for $19 per month (America Lite) or unlimited voice, messaging and data for $30 per month (America Unlimited).

While the service offering is nationwide, Voyager said it was currently limiting sales to Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Voyager Mobile’s current device lineup is smartphone heavy, with a smattering of Android-powered devices from Samsung, LG and Motorola; a Windows Phone-powered device from HTC; a pair of messaging devices from LG and Kyocera; and a flip-phone from Samsung. The devices are not subsidized. Most devices show a shipping time frame of three to five weeks.

The company does not mention any limitations on data services in its terms of service, beyond the usual stipulations that any misuse of the offering could result in cancellation of service.

One expected unique aspect of the offering is expected to be the Voyager Rewards program that will award “points” for usage that can be redeemed for airline miles, gift cards, or phone upgrades, or used to pay for monthly service. The offering is currently unavailable, with the Voyager website noting only that the feature is “coming soon.”

Another interesting new entrant into the space is video game retailer GameStop, which reportedly has begun selling SIM cards compatible with AT&T Mobility’s network. The company’s website dedicated to the service has an ominous “Not Found” tag at the top, which could mean the offering was launched before the company was ready to announce the service.

Sprint Nextel’s Virgin Mobile USA subsidiary also mixed up its offering today, unveiling an unlimited voice, messaging and 50 megabytes of data service through its PayLo sub-brand for $40 per month. The offering is currently limited to PayLo’s feature and messaging phones.

The PayLo service was launched in mid-2010, focused specifically on voice services as an adjunct to Virgin Mobile USA’s focus on the messaging and data space. The offering was eventually folded into the Virgin Mobile USA sphere and is now marketed as a sub-brand.

History repeating itself?

The domestic MVNO space has been a roller coaster ride for participants. The market was originally an offshoot of the reseller space that included such names as MCI and Tracfone Wireless that purchased wireless minutes from a variety of wireless operators that were then sold to consumers. However, big brands began to infiltrate the space about a decade ago with more cohesive offerings that partnered with a specific wireless operator and looked to tap a brand’s cache with consumers to gain market share. Early entrants during this phase included ESPN and Disney.

However, these players seemed to quickly realize the difficulty in trying to compete with established wireless operators and soon left the market.

More recently, a number of smaller names have re-entered the space on the back of consumer demand for unlimited calling, messaging and data services without a contract.

Tracfone, which is one of the longest tenured players in the reseller/MVNO space and has the backing of Latin America’s telecom giant America Movil, recently bolstered its domestic operations by acquiring T-Mobile USA network partner Simple Mobile. The move adds to Tracfone’s arsenal of prepaid services that include its own branded service, the Net10 offering and its Straight Talk service.

Bottom Line: The lure of mobile continues to intice participants with ideas of untapped potential. With established players seeing their postpaid markets virtually tapped out in terms of growth, the prepaid market has become the battle ground. While it’s encouraging to see new names pop up, some with unique propositions that could be a draw from select consumer groups, don’t expect the established operators that still own the networks to take the moves lying down.

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Dan Meyer

Editor-in-Chief, Telecom Software, Policy, Wireless Carriers
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Dan Meyer started at RCR Wireless News in 1999 covering wireless carriers and wireless technologies. As editor-in-chief, Dan oversees editorial direction, reports on news from the wireless industry, including telecom software, policy and wireless carriers, and provides opinion stories on topics of concern to the market such as his popular Friday column “Worst of the Week.”