By Carlo Longino
ESPN is synonymous with sports in America. And while the cable net has made some slight forays into the wireless space with a mobile version of its website and some games and applications, its Mobile ESPN service is looking to translate the SportsCenter experience onto a phone. Mobile ESPN is launching on a Sanyo handset that features a custom UI built around the data services that will deliver pretty much anything a sports junkie needs—live scores, news, video highlights and more.
But ESPN and other big brands don't want to take a backseat to mobile operators, and they certainly don't want to get into the business of buying spectrum and building out their own wireless networks. Their strengths are in content and marketing, not setting up and maintaining a cellular network. So they become a virtual operator—they buy airtime wholesale from a traditional carrier, then package it, market it and sell it however they want.
The idea of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) isn't anything new, with companies like Virgin Mobile or Tracfone having operated in the US for a few years. Typically MVNOs sell service with features and add-ons than you might get from your normal carriers, albeit at a lower price. But a new breed of MVNOs looks to change that, using incumbent carriers' new high-speed networks as the launching pad for an array of content and technology quite unlike anything previously available in the US.
ESPN's approach reflects that of many MVNOs: pick a niche and doggedly attack it. While this can be useful for general demographic groups, focusing on something like sports can be problematic, because while there are plenty of people that would love to have sports content on their phone, how many want just sports content and nothing else?
Another new-model MVNO launching soon is Amp'd, which is headed by the guy that started Nextel's youth-centric Boost brand. Amp'd is going after the 18- to 35-year-old market, leaning heavily on video content from partners like Comedy Central and Adult Swim, as well as viral-style videos and adult content. It's also developed a huge catalog of games as well as a music download service.
Amp'd, which plans to launch in November, is following an interesting strategy: look at what the traditional wireless operators are doing, then do the exact opposite. So things that people hate about their existing wireless carrier—devices with features removed, restrictive and expensive data plans, clunky user interfaces and so on—are gone. Statements like "We don't want to ask people to change the way they do things," reveal how diametrically opposed Amp'd and other MVNOs are to traditional carriers. "We don't have that telco mentality," says Amp'd chief marketing officer, Don McGuire. "We're an entertainment company."
Then there's SK-Earthlink, a joint venture between South Korea's leading wireless carrier, SK Telecom, and ISP upstart Earthlink. The basic idea here is to take SK's bleeding-edge technology from Korea and meld it with Earthlink's knowledge of the US market and its customer-service operations. SK-Earthlink, which should launch in the spring under a new brand name, is still remaining quiet about exactly what services it will have and handsets it will sell, but judging by the CDMA EV-DO handsets SK sells in Korea, it could make the gadget writer's often-used tagline—"you'll never see that here"—an endangered species. "We're going to offer access to technology that people may have been disappointed they couldn't get before," says SK-Earthlink's director of corporate communications, Julie Cordua. "We will deliver something this market has never seen before."
SK Earthlink, like the others, is also targeting a narrow niche: 18- to 30-year-olds that are willing to pay a premium for advanced handsets and data services. A traditional carrier simply couldn't take that narrow of a focus and remain a viable business. "It's hard for carriers to shift their brand," Cordua says. "Since we're starting from scratch, we can start something different."
The real potential impact of these latest MVNOs, though, isn't just their content and services as an end in themselves, but rather as disruptive forces to the wireless service business as a whole. While a lot can change between now and the time they launch, the MVNOs are saying all the right things in terms of the services and experiences they'll provide, reflecting the dissatisfaction many of us have with our wireless provider. Mobile ESPN, for example, put out a press release saying how great its customer service will be.
Most of these lessons aren't specific to the narrow target markets they've defined—while everybody might not be interested in baseball highlights videos, most people are interested in getting good service at a fair price, something traditional carriers still struggle to deliver. The content offering can always be reconfigured to address another niche, or even, perhaps, the mass market. But while it might be that flashy content that gets all the initial interest, it could be the way these companies treat their customers in delivering all these cool services that keeps them going, and causes the most problems for their physical-network rivals.
Read more Airtime. The column appears every Tuesday on Gizmodo.