China Telecom’s UK MVNO reflects market shifts

China Telecom launched its long-awaited UK MVNO this week, under the snappy name of CTExcelbiz. Using Everything Everywhere’s network, it’s aimed at Chinese residents of the UK, as well as students and tourists, and promises to meet the specific communication requirements of the UK’s Chinese population, voicemail services in Chinese, bilingual customer service and free on-network calls. China Telecom is the first Chinese operator to launch an overseas MVNO, and has a potential market of around 500,000 customers of Chinese descent, in addition to the estimated 1 million Chinese tourists who visit each year. The UK is just China Telecom’s first stop in launching MVNO services throughout Western Europe and the rest of the world.

The launch is also important in that it reflects two trends that we see currently playing out in the UK market. The first is the rise of ethnic MVNOs that target a specific community; this is in contrast to the more generalist players that have traditionally dominated the ethnic segment, Lebara Mobile and LycaMobile. Although Lyca and Lebara have been able to use their multi-country, multi-operator strategies to keep prices low, players like CTExcelbiz are able to offer services specific to their target markets, such as customer service in the user’s native language.

This is particularly important in a country like the UK, which has a large and diverse population, with a great many separate ethnic groups that may need different services from their mobile provider. In the case of CTExcelbiz, Chinese-language voicemail and customer service are essential for tourists who may not know English or know which SIM to buy to call home.

The other trend the launch of CTExcelbiz reflects is that of foreign operators setting up MVNOs in the UK to target their fellow citizens living abroad. This gives foreign telcos a way to reconnect with expatriates and give them a cheaper way of staying in contact with relatives back home. A notable example is in Germany, where Turk Telecom and Turkcell have both set up MVNOs catering to Germany’s large Turkish community, while Vodafone offers discounted rates on prepaid calls to its Turkish network (this is not limited to mobile operators, of course, as German-based fans of Turkish football club Fenerbahce can make calls on the Fenercell network). In the UK Vizz Mobile has signed agreements with Sri Lankan operator Dialog and Afghan operator Roshan to target those communities.

We expect this trend to continue, as immigration, tourism and student or business travel increase. It gives travellers the chance to pick up a local SIM that they can use for the duration of their stay, and lets the existing UK MNOs get traffic from customers they would normally not have access to. Call it part of the move toward globalization: a patchwork of MVNOs reflecting the UK’s cultural mix.

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