Mint Mobile Acquisition Shines Light on Uncertain Market Position of MVNOs

Telecom’s most famous Canadian continues to make waves in wireless.

In mid-March, T-Mobile announced that it would be acquiring Mint Mobile and its affiliated brands Ultra Mobile and Plum. And while the brilliantly written announcement alongside Mint co-owner Ryan Reynolds provoked a lot of laughs, it also has done a lot to raise questions about the status of MVNOs in the increasingly competitive wireless market. Namely, are MVNOs a competitive threat to mobile network operators, or aren’t they?

According to Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, the FCC has long taken the (somewhat controversial) position that MVNOs are not real” competitors to MNOs.

That stance by the FCC doesn’t sit well with Peter Adderton, former owner of Boost Mobile and current CEO of newly launched MVNO MobileX, who wants regulators to treat MVNOs as competition and protect them accordingly. My belief is the FCC and the DoJ need to do something fast to protect the MVNOs, because without some kind of protection, they’re just going to get swallowed up by the bigger carriers.”

Convergence in the telecom market has been intense in the past few years, especially in terms of telco acquisition of MVNOs. T-Mobile’s acquisition of Mint is just the latest in a series of major MVNO acquisitions, after Dish’s acquisition of Boost, Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone, and others. This is widely seen as a threat by consumer-advocacy groups, which have opposed further vertical integration in the telecom market.

Telecom convergence is happening amid an explosion of cable market entrants.

All of this takes place as telecom carriers are losing share to cable, which accelerated mobile gains in 2022a trend expected to continue into 2023—as US cable companies accounted for more than 40% of net wireless adds in Q4 of 2023. Additionally, major US cable MVNOs are still coming online, which will only increase competition in this already-crowded space.

While Dish is still being coy about when Boost Infinite will see nationwide coverage, the service is now live in 12 markets. Cox Communications is also ramping up its own MVNO offering. And the NCTC — a trade group of more than 700 independent cable and broadband companies — is in the final stages of hammering out a deal with Reach that would allow its members to market and sell mobile services—either as part of a home broadband bundle or a standalone service.

Is that something most NCTC members are interested in? Could we see tens, if not hundreds of new cable MVNOs flooding the market? 

Signs point to… maybe?

Julie Laulis, Cable One’s president and CEO, said on a recent earnings call, We don’t hear from our customers that they’re clamoring for yet another provider of wireless service at this time”.

Cable One CFO Todd Koetje added, In many of our rural markets, wireless reliability is actually not where it needs to be yet for us to consider that.” 

Arguments about competition are happening as wireless consumers are more price-conscious than ever.

The growing consumer interest in MVNOs is being driven largely by consumer demand for lower wireless prices as inflation continues to cause consumer belt-tightening in 2023.

Recent research from JD Power shows that for value MVNOs” like Consumer Cellular, TracFone and Straight Talk, 68% of their customers are price-switchers”, up from 63% in 2021

In addition to competing on price, MVNOs are also leading the market in customer satisfaction. JD Power found that while overall customer satisfaction with wireless providers had increased, the providers with the highest customer satisfaction scores were all MVNOs: Consumer Cellular, Metro, and Mint Mobile.

Ironically, Mint Mobile is still not able to operate in Canada.

The furor over MVNOs will remain on the American side of the border for the foreseeable future. Despite the fact that Canada has one of the most consolidated telecom industries in the world, CRTC rules requiring providers to have physical networks have kept MVNOs from being able to operate in Canada.

These restrictions are something that Vancouver-born Ryan Reynolds has spoken out against, going so far as to put up a billboard in downtown Toronto in late 2021.

I feel like this post needs a firmer identification of what the uncertainty” or questions” actually are over MVNOs status/​future. I presume you mean that they all risk being acquired like Mint was, and the new competition in the market will be swallowed up by the big players? If yes, be a bit more explicit about that, including explaining why T-Mobile/Mint creates new questions - given that, as you observe, this is just the latest in a line of similar acquisitions

However, the CRTC’s new rules finalized in late 2022 retain the restriction that operators must own physical infrastructure to operate in Canada — a move that consumer advocacy group OpenMedia says is recommitting to a bad policy. They have just been 100 per cent committed to the facilities-based or physical infrastructure-based competition model, which simply hasn’t served Canada,” said campaigns director Matt Hatfield. We’ve been trying it for over a decade and it doesn’t actually happen.”

These rules aren’t expected to change, so whatever happens with MVNOs in the United States in the near future, Canadian consumers will have to be content with Ryan Reynolds-free wireless ads.

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