opinion


What defines the European MVNO market?

Cover of the European MVNO market report by the MVNOs Series. A woman wearing VR headset and another woman checking her mobile.

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece the MVNOs Series team investigates the latest trends and challenges facing the virtual network operator market in Europe. What are the lessons to be learnt from them?

The European MVNO market is the world’s oldest, largest and most mature. Boasting more virtual network operators and more user subscriptions than any other region, MVNOs in some European countries command as much as 15 to 20% of the total mobile market.

By 2020, some estimates put the total number of MVNO subscribers on the continent at upwards of 110 million – not far off four times the total number in the USA.

With market liberalisation occuring in some European countries as early as 1995, and the world’s first recognisable MVNO – Virgin Mobile – launched in the UK in 1999, the region’s virtual networks have had close to two decades to emerge, grow and evolve. Operating in a market where 84% of the population owns a mobile phone and the mobile industry contributes nearly €600 billion to GDP, the incentives for European MVNOs have arguably been greater than anywhere else on the planet.

And in the EU, representing a significant proportion of the continent’s domestic markets, including some of the biggest in the likes of Germany, UK, France and Spain, MVNOs have also found a highly supportive regulatory framework.

Yet success brings its own pressures, the European MVNO sector, and the mobile market in general, is intensely competitive. With mobile ownership having sat close to saturation point for a decade or more, vertical growth has become harder and harder, sparking fierce price wars and waves of consolidation. ARPUs first from voice and then from data have tumbled, the product of regulatory intervention and much as competition.

As the market stands on the brink of its 20th anniversary, forces such as Roam-Like-At-Home take part in shaping the European MVNO industry heading into a third decade. The EU’s decision to ban roaming charges within its borders is a question yet to be answered. As we shall find out in the upcoming months, RLAH could deal a significant blow to the industry or, alternatively, present a much-needed opportunity.

Snapshot: The European MVNO Market 2018

Comprising around two thirds of the continent’s nation states and population, it is no surprise that much of  Europe’s MVNO activity is concentrated within The European Union (EU). Around two thirds of all the continent’s MVNOs are found in just five EU member states – Germany, the UK, France, Netherlands and Spain.

Germany boasts one of the world’s largest domestic MVNO markets, with around 48 million subscribers and revenues of US $11 billion. This huge sector enjoyed rapid growth following a wave of operator consolidation in 2014, when the regulators sought to mitigate against price inflation by handing 30% of network capabilities to MVNOs.

The UK, meanwhile, has been described as one of the world’s most crowded MVNO markets, with 13.5 million customers shared out between upwards of 100 virtual operators. However, 86% of these customers are shared out between a dominant ‘Big 6’ group of large MVNOs – Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile, GiffGaff, Lycamobile, Lebara and TalkMobile.

With Sky another sizeable player in the UK market, it is noticeable how big name brands from outside the traditional mobile sphere have used the MVNO model as a way into the UK market. Overall, one in seven UK mobiles are connected via a virtual operator and the sector is worth more than £2 billion.

As in most areas of industry and commerce, no one is quite sure how the UK’s looming departure from the EU will impact on the MVNO sector, both domestically and on the continent. Outstanding issues to be resolved include whether the EU’s Roam Like At Home (RLAH) rules will still relate to UK subscribers travelling in the EU, and how carriers which operate networks both on the continent and in the UK (including Vodafone, Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica) will handle wholesale arrangements in the newly separated markets.

Outside the EU, the biggest single domestic MVNO market in Europe is Russia. Although conditions for virtual operators in Russia have long been viewed as challenging due to the dominance of the country’s big 3 carriers and little sign of regulatory intervention to liberalise the market, MVNOs are now estimated to control 2.6% of the country’s mobile subscribers. Some analysts confidently predict that this will grow to 14 to 15% by 2022.

Carrier Tele2 Russia certainly appears to be taking active steps to increase its MVNO footprint, reporting 831,000 virtual subscribers on its network at the end of 2017. Its model seems to be using MVNO agreements to attract large non-telco players into the mobile space – Tinkoff Bank has this year announced a 1 billion rubles investment into its MVNO spin-off, Tinkoff Mobile, while Moscow-based ISP AKADO Telecom has also announced signing an agreement with Tele2.

Across Europe’s most developed MVNO markets, there are mixed views on the potential for growth. In KNect365’s global MVNO market survey carried out earlier in 2018, some respondents described growth prospects as ranging from slow to stagnant. A common theme was that traditional MVNO models are increasingly being squeezed through a combination of price competition and over-saturation in the market, although there were varied opinions on whether this made it difficult for new players to enter the market or else created new opportunities for innovative entrants with disruptive approaches.

Despite the tough trading environment, more than a quarter of respondents (28.5%) still cited Europe as the region offering the best growth opportunities for MVNOs. Some analysts argue that European consumers, already at an advanced stage of engagement with mobile services, will soon start to look beyond price for increasing levels of specialisation and personalised service. This plays into the hands of agile MVNOs which have the experience serving niche markets while network operators, already faced with dwindling retail margins, are more and more likely to turn to wholesale business models instead.

On the other hand, there is a school of thought that suggests it is becoming harder and harder for MVNOs in Europe to operate out of the shadow of their network operators with any degree of independence. Some insiders told us they see MNOs aggressively targeting traditional MVNO territory in a bid to bolster their own dwindling margins.

As Henrik Liungman, Vice President of Services at ACN Europe, commented: “The trend is clearly towards larger data plans. The MVNO’s are struggling to compete with the MNO’s unlimited data offers on the retail side. 100G plans or unlimited data with caveats are not something MVNO’s can offer with the current cost structures.”

Europe’s MVNOs are looking to brand new markets and brand-new business models away from the consumer sector in business services. In the UK, for example, more than 20% for the MVNO market is now focused on business. In Germany, the connected car market is the most advanced in the world, creating brand new opportunities for agile, specialist operators at the intersection of IoT and eSIM technologies. Yet another significant trend is digitalisation, with the adoption of cloud-based ‘as-a-service’ business models by virtual operators positioning them ideally to make the transition into B2B, and to take a step up the value chain to offer mobile enabling services to emerging IoT markets.

The research-based report Shaping the European MVNO Market looks closely at the impact of consolidation on the market and ask whether carriers and virtual operators alike might not benefit from more collaborative rather than competitive relationships.

With pricing on voice and data having practically become a zero-sum game, it looks at ways MVNOs are diversifying services to seek new value streams and assess the impact of OTT entrants.

The report also explores the impact of new technology, specifically how digitalisation is changing business models and the size of the IoT opportunity, and ask whether over the next decade Europe’s MVNO sector might see a significant shift away from consumer to B2B markets. Download the report!

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