MVNOs at the Gate The Rise of Service- based Competition in

Bahjat El-Darwiche
Hilal Halaoui
Adel Belcaid
Amr Goussous
MVNOs at the Gate
The Rise of Servicebased Competition in
the MENA Region
Contact Information
Bahjat El-Darwiche
[email protected]
Adel Belcaid
Senior Associate
[email protected]
Amr Goussous
Senior Associate
[email protected]
Hilal Halaoui
[email protected]
Booz & Company
As the mobile telecom market in the Middle East and North
Africa (MENA) region approaches maturity, with penetration rates in excess of 100 percent, the region is witnessing
an increasing number of mobile virtual network operators
(MVNOs). These entities offer mobile services to niche markets by leasing the excess capacity of existing mobile network
operators (MNOs). They typically target small segments of
the telecom market, with a customized value proposition that
includes targeted pricing, innovative services, and an overall
customer experience that resonates with the affinities of their
customer base. MVNOs in other areas of the world have had
an impact on the mobile telecom market, and they have the
potential to do so in the MENA region as well. At this juncture in the development of the region’s telecom sector, stakeholders in the industry must understand the MVNO game,
including lessons learned from other parts of the world.
For MVNOs and their investors, the
key success factors include a differentiated, focused value proposition; a
lean cost model; an effective sales and
distribution channel; and a favorable agreement with the host telecom
provider. For MNOs, the challenge
is to understand the competitive
threat from these upstarts and decide
whether and how to leverage their
strengths through business alliances
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or by launching their own internal
MVNOs. Finally, telecom regulators
must ensure that the market remains
open to service-based competitors,
by policing anticompetitive behavior
and incentivizing incumbent MNOs
to open their networks at acceptable commercial terms, while giving
consumers the widest possible range
of telecom offerings.
• Market dynamics in Europe show
that a single market can support
several dozen MVNOs, with an
aggregate market share of 10 to
15 percent.
• To date, the MENA region has
witnessed the entry of relatively
few MVNOs, but there are
indications that the market is ripe
for them.
• Although MVNO regulation
in the MENA region is not yet
widespread, stakeholders can
use the branded reseller model
in the absence of relevant
regulatory frameworks.
MVNOs focus exclusively on commercial activities and rely completely
on MNOs for their network and IT
needs. Alternatively, a full MVNO has
its own network and IT platforms;
it relies on the MNO only for radio
access and some elements of network
routing and functionality
(see Exhibit 1).
An MVNO (mobile virtual network
operator) is a company that provides
mobile telecommunications services
without having its own radio spectrum or physical network; in essence,
it sells mobile services while leasing
the capacity from an MNO (mobile
network operator). MVNOs have
multiple business models, which can
be categorized according to their level
of ownership of technical infrastructure and activities along the value
chain. For example, branded-reseller
The success of MVNOs thus far
largely stems from their nimble
approach—they can access markets
that large mobile operators often
cannot or will not (owing to a lack
of interest or, sometimes, to rigid
business models and organizations).
MVNOs typically offer a value
proposition that builds on significant
research and deep behavioral understanding of their target customer
segment. This allows them to deliver
services that match the needs of their
Exhibit 1
MVNOs Can Operate with a Range of Capabilities Along the Value Chain
Network Apps &
Routing & Services
Customer Customer Customer Marketing Sales &
Branding &
Activation Billing
Distribution Communication
Branded Reseller
Service MVNO
MNO Activities
MVNO Activities
Source: Booz & Company
Booz & Company
target segments, such as greater service accessibility, inexpensive pricing
plans, international calling deals, or
innovative content and applications.
MVNOs’ entry into the region
can catalyze the market by further
stimulating SIM penetration and
lowering prices. Hence, established
telecom players will need to determine their strategies with regard
to MVNOs. With the right parameters, both sides can win. MVNOs
can thrive by developing marketing
strategies and service offerings that
resonate with a limited and welldefined slice of the telecom market.
MNOs can create incremental gains
by leveraging underused telecom
capacity. However, under the wrong
conditions, this symbiotic relationship can fall out of balance, resulting in an unnecessary price war that
will further erode margins.
To date, the MENA region has
witnessed the entry of relatively few
MVNOs, but there are signs that the
market is ripe for them. Oman and
Jordan have already issued several
MVNO licenses, and virtual operators such as Friendi Group and Renna
have offered commercial service since
2009. Because this is a rapidly unfolding development in the market, regulators have not yet established a means
of overseeing it. As a result, MVNOs
and MNOs still have wide latitude in
how to structure their alliances. Some
operators have partnered with wellknown players in a branded reseller
business model. For instance, Friendi
KSA launched in Saudi Arabia as a
sub-brand of Zain.
The experience of more mature markets indicates that in time, MVNOs
will collectively command a reasonable market share. We have seen the
proliferation of MVNOs in Europe
over the past decade; some western
European countries now have as many
as 30 MVNOs, with an aggregate
market share of 10 to 15 percent.
Of course, key differences exist
between the telecom markets in
Europe and the Middle East. In
Europe, MVNOs arrived at a much
earlier stage, in some cases arriving in
areas where penetration rates were as
low as 50 percent. Even in the most
developed European telecom market
to see its first MVNO, penetration
was at 118 percent, still lower than
most markets in the MENA region
(see Exhibit 2). Despite these differences in market maturity, the comparatively long track record of virtual
operators in Europe offers some key
lessons for MVNOs and their investors in the MENA region.
Exhibit 2
MVNOs Entered the European Market at a Far Earlier Stage Than They Entered the MENA Region
Mobile Penetration When MVNOs First Entered
(Selected European Markets)
Mobile Penetration When MVNOs First Entered
(Selected Middle East Markets)
Source: Booz & Company
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It is important for MVNOs and
their potential investors to understand the ways in which the MVNO
business model differs from the
traditional mobile telecom model.
MVNOs in any market have four
key success factors:
1. Offer a differentiated and focused
value proposition. One of the key
competitive advantages of MVNOs is
that they have a thorough knowledge
of their market segment, allowing
them to cater to that segment in a
far more personal, relevant way than
large-scale MNOs can. The most
visible example is Virgin Mobile,
which operates in the U.K. and other
markets and caters to the youth segment through innovative marketing
and strong digital content (branded
as Virgin Media). Another example is
Turkcell Europe, an MVNO recently
launched in Germany to cater to that
country’s large Turkish expat community. The brand operates on Deutsche
Telekom’s network and offers a clear
advantage in international calling rates, roaming prices, Turkish
content, and Turkish-speaking call
centers. The company’s knowledge
of the Turkish market gives it a differentiated and focused position that
would be very difficult for incumbent
MNOs to replicate.
The experience of MVNOs in Europe
also clearly shows that this value
proposition cannot be based solely on
price. Brands that have built businesses exclusively on lower calling
rates have suffered in fierce price
wars. In those situations, MNOs will
almost always win, given their greater
financial resources and disproportionate scale.
2. Create a lean organization with
a low cost structure. Because their
niche market segments are small,
MVNOs are not able to acquire
subscribers in sufficient volume to
establish economies of scale. As
discussed earlier, benchmarks of the
healthiest MVNO markets in western
Europe indicate a maximum collective market share of 15 percent.
Accordingly, successful MVNOs
should aim to achieve a viable business model based on a market share
of between 3 and 7 percent. Other
financial metrics are correspondingly
lower—whereas EBITDA margins
for incumbent MNOs typically range
between 35 and 45 percent, MVNOs
usually see margins in the range of 10
to 20 percent.
In this context, it is critical that
MVNOs maintain a very lean organization with low costs. They need to
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scrutinize every element of their value
chain and determine the optimal
strategy for delivering these elements,
including outsourcing to third parties,
forming partnerships, or procuring
from the host MNO.
3. Develop effective sales and distribution channels. Without a solid distribution network, even an MVNO
with a loyal audience and premium
content will not succeed. MVNOs
must ensure that their products and
services are highly visible and immediately accessible to the consumer segment they are targeting. Products such
as SIM cards and recharge vouchers,
as well as below-the-line marketing
and merchandising efforts, must be
available in the right channels.
For example, consider ESPN Mobile,
a much-hyped MVNO focusing on
sports fans with a value proposition consisting of rich sports content
at premium prices. The venture
launched without a distribution
network in place; ESPN did not
establish partnerships with retailers,
and it underestimated how difficult
and time-consuming it would be to
establish its own network. Because
its products and services were not
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easily accessible, ESPN Mobile ultimately failed.
4. Set up a viable wholesale agreement with the host MNO. A wholesale agreement with an MNO is
among the most critical success
factors for MVNOs, because it has
an immediate impact on the viability
of the entire entity. Particularly at
this stage in the market’s development, when regulators in the Middle
East have yet to establish a regulatory
framework for these arrangements,
MVNOs must negotiate their own
favorable and robust agreements
with host MNOs. Terms must go far
beyond pricing strategies and include
clear provisions on operational
aspects and quality of service, both of
which affect the day-to-day ability of
the MVNO to service its customers.
In a nutshell, the key issues to negotiate are:
• The scope of services to be rendered by the host, including transmission and signaling, activation
and billing, sales and distribution,
customer care, and the like
organization, including points of
contact, decision-making bodies,
escalation procedures, change
management, and emergency
plans, among other elements
• The pricing strategy—such as
retail-minus, cost-plus, or wholesale—and the conditions under
which pricing terms can be revised
• The implementation plan, including service-level agreements
(SLAs), monitoring and reporting
of key performance indicators and
other data, implementation work
plan, fraud management, exchange
of documentation, and training
Typically, MVNOs prefer to pursue
a retail-minus agreement with the
MNO; that allows their cost structure to adjust as the prices drop
(as they almost inevitably do over
time in the mobile telecom market).
However, rarely do MNOs award a
retail-minus pricing agreement. More
typically, they opt to charge wholesale bulk prices with a calculated
margin to ensure that the MVNO
does not have a significant price
advantage in the market.
• The cooperation process and
The proliferation of MVNOs has
given rise to third-party vendors
known as mobile virtual network
enablers (MVNEs), or, alternatively,
as mobile virtual network aggregators (MVNAs). These vendors serve
as a link between incumbent mobile
operators and the smaller MVNOs,
handling technical and other aspects
of their shared-services arrangements. By working with multiple
virtual operators, they can establish
economies of scale on their technology platforms. This allows MVNOs
to significantly reduce their operating costs and up-front investment,
thereby reducing the subscriber base
they need to break even. This in turn
leads to further micro-segmentation
in the market.
Benchmarks suggest that MVNEsupported MVNOs require significantly fewer subscribers to break
even on premarketing costs, when
compared with an independent
MVNO model. For example, Simyo,
an MVNO offering no-frills mobile
service in Germany and other
European markets, keeps costs down
by outsourcing its technology platform to an MVNE.
As for incumbent operators, the
MVNE model allows them to better
focus on their core competencies
of operating a full-fledged mobile
network and serving their mobile customers, while the third-party MVNE
can focus on the MVNO link and
serve the indirect customers.
The services that MVNEs offer
vary widely, but recently we have
seen them provide end-to-end
services, from technical aspects
to sales and distribution support.
This trend toward more comprehensive offerings is being driven by
the presence of many brands in the
market with differentiated access
to specific niche segments but little
or no telecom knowledge. In some
cases, MVNEs proactively seek such
untapped brands and offer them
one-stop à la carte services from the
telecom value chain, enabling an
immediate “go to market” capability as a branded reseller.
For instance, football clubs can
potentially capitalize on the intense
loyalty of their fans and provide
mobile services and club-specific
content and applications. These
clubs would not normally seek to
acquire telecom capabilities or invest
in telecom infrastructure; however,
an MVNE can provide them turnkey
telecom services, including sales and
marketing, making the approach a
viable option.
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MVNO entry has been limited in
the MENA region; only Oman
and Jordan have issued MVNO
licenses. In other markets, such as
Saudi Arabia, some operators have
embraced MVNOs through the
branded reseller model. MVNOs
may represent direct competition to
MNOs. However, they can also complement and strengthen the MNOs’
business, under the right circumstances. Indeed, MVNOs represent
a viable and strategically significant
way for mobile operators to increase
their subscriber base, creating value
for host MNOs in several key ways.
For MENA operators, MVNOs can
potentially play a key role in further
penetrating key underserved segments, such as youth, expatriates, and
small and medium-sized enterprises—
segments that full-fledged operators
in the MENA region sometimes
struggle to adequately serve. MNOs
tend to approach such segments with
generic offerings that do not resonate
strongly with the target audiences,
because such segments are typically
too small to justify tailored products
and services. The lean and agile business model of the MVNO, however,
allows highly focused targeting.
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For example, the MENA population
has been growing at an average of 2.5
percent for the past five years, driven
primarily by youth: 61 percent of the
population is below the age of 30. In
any single market, the youth segment
is very diverse, and its communication requirements vary significantly.
Nonetheless, MNOs tend to treat the
entire youth population as a single
segment, providing offerings focused
on competitive pricing and youth
branding. But smart operators can,
for example, partner with an MVNO
that has digital rights to online music
in order to target niche teen segments
with an offer of easy access to a rich
and up-to-date directory of online
Arabic and Western music. Although
this proposition will not appeal to the
entire youth segment, it will lock in
a small subsegment that places great
emphasis on digital music.
Alternatively, an MNO can aim to
partner with an MVNO that specifically targets one subsegment of
expatriates by offering customer care
in their own language or providing
remittance services and discounted
international minutes to their home
market. MerchanTrade Inc., an
MVNO in Malaysia that caters to the
expatriate community, offers a good
example of this approach. Its mobile
remittance service allows subscribers
to transfer money within its partner
bank network in less than five minutes, at a fraction of the cost of
other services.
MNOs may look at typical MVNO
offerings and judge them as being
so simple that the MNO will not
require an MVNO partner to execute
those offerings. More than the
offerings themselves, however, what
MVNOs bring to the table is the
ability to focus relentlessly on a particular segment, giving it a level of
attention that MNOs cannot afford
to bring to any single group, particularly if it is small.
In addition to complementing MNOs’
marketing efforts, MVNOs allow
them to run their networks at full
strength by leasing out underused
capacity on a wholesale basis. The
result is better network efficiency for
the MNO, and a better return on its
infrastructure investment.
Early experience from more developed markets shows that it can be
difficult for MNOs to strike the
right balance with their MVNO
partners. In Denmark, for example,
an MVNO called Telmore A/S—one
of the first in the world—was so
successful that it took significant
market share from TDC Mobile
International A/S, its host operator,
before ultimately being acquired
by it. However, lessons from the
past decade will likely prevent this
pattern from occurring again and
ensure that the relationship between
MVNOs and host MNOs creates
value for both sides. In particular,
MNOs should be proactive about
developing their MVNO-hosting
business and move quickly to sign
up partners with strong brand
equity, exploiting the inherent firstmover advantage.
To ensure they derive the greatest
benefit from these partnerships,
MNOs should proactively build
their MVNO strategy on the following three pillars:
1. Seek complementary positioning. An
MNO should identify strategic niche
segments that it is unable to target
directly, and partner with MVNOs
to meet their needs. These partnerships should enhance the MNO’s own
market position to avoid erosion of
market share and profitability.
2. Ensure that the MVNO can
deliver. In choosing an MVNO partner,
it is critical to ensure that the MVNO
has created a sustainable and differentiated business model that offers value
to the target segment and does not
compete solely on price, which would
cut into margins in the long term.
3. Build a win-win partnership.
MNOs should invest in their MVNO
partners’ success: Because the viability
of the MVNO business model depends
largely on the wholesale agreement
and SLA with the host operator,
MNOs should provide services and
bandwidth under reasonable terms
to let the MVNO invest in its commercial efforts and effectively serve its
intended targets.
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Case Study: Germany’s E-Plus Adopts an MVNO Strategy
Several years ago E-Plus Inc., a German MNO that launched in 1993,
was facing the perils of a mature telecom market. Although the number of
subscribers in the overall German market grew 11 percent between 2002
and 2005, the market share for E-Plus grew just 4 percent. Over that same
time period, the company’s EBITDA margin declined from 32 percent to 24
percent. The company’s market position was being eroded by the increasing
competitiveness of O2 (a telecom brand in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, and
several other regions) and by the continuing dominance of T-Mobile and
Vodafone, both of which were larger than E-Plus in its home market. The
market was near saturation and offered little traditional growth potential.
In response, E-Plus transformed itself in 2005 from a single one-size-fits-all
service provider into a collection of brands, each targeting a specific microsegment in the German market. These brands included:
• Base, the first flat-rate mobile brand on the German market, aimed at
customers seeking a simple plan
• Simyo, a prepaid-services MVNO for cost-conscious consumers
• Ay Yildiz, the first mobile brand tailored to Germany’s Turkish community
• vybemobile, a brand for German youth, which combined low costs with free
music downloads
E-Plus did not limit this strategy to developing its own brands. Rather, the
company actively sought to host and partner with various brands and
resellers in the market. By 2009, it had partnered with and launched 34
different MVNOs in the German market. Throughout this period, E-Plus
improved its retail presence in the market, both organically (by opening its
own retail shops) and inorganically (by acquiring other brands with a retail
presence). By 2008, the company had opened more than 300 locations,
and that year it acquired specialist dealer SMS Michel and mobile phone
discounter Blau Mobilfunk, giving it a comprehensive retail footprint across
Germany of more than 650 stores.
The results of this transformation have been striking. E-Plus’s subscriber base
grew by 18 percent between 2005 and 2008, even as its EBITDA margin grew
from 24 percent to 39 percent. For the past six years, E-Plus has been the
only MNO in Germany with increasing market share. The company’s strategy
also hampered the growth of O2, which saw declining market share growth
after 2006.
The embrace of MVNOs also allowed E-Plus to lower its subscriber
acquisition costs, which declined 64 percent from 2005 to 2008. MNOs
can pay lower subsidies to new subscribers, while sharing marketing and
other costs, and MVNOs can leverage their distribution channels to reach
consumers within the target market more efficiently.
The bottom line? In a highly competitive German telecom market, E-Plus
adopted an MVNO strategy to put itself back on track.
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Regulators have a key role to play
in the growth of MVNOs. After
a first wave of market liberalization, in which alternative operators
begin competing with the historical
incumbent using their own spectrum
and infrastructure, MVNOs can
enter in a second wave—ensuring
greater competition and consumer
choice in their markets, which is
attractive for regulators.
Another reason MVNOs appeal to
regulators is that MVNO regulation is relatively simple, relying to
a large extent on market forces—
unlike the regulation of alternative
MNOs, which is complex and driven
primarily by the scarcity of spectrum,
the substantial capital-intensive
costs involved, and the fundamental
impact that telecommunications have
on the economic and social fabric of
any market. Several considerations
will help ensure a healthy and sustainable MVNO industry.
First, regulators must determine
the best time to introduce MVNOs
in their markets. Optimal timing
depends primarily on the level of
market saturation, as measured by
mobile penetration, and the level
of market concentration, as measured by the distribution of existing
players’ share in a given market.
Another consideration is the grace
period, de facto or stipulated in
the spectrum license, from which
alternative MNOs typically benefit in
the first few years of operation. The
grace period allows them to build a
reasonable ROI on their substantial
spectrum and network expenditures.
Although there are no general rules
on the saturation and concentration
thresholds that a regulator should
designate as the triggers to open their
markets to service-based competition, introducing MVNOs too early
might upset incumbent MNOs and
might not yield the desired boost to
competition. Conversely, regulators
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that hesitate too long before authorizing MVNOs might turn out to be
waiting in vain, because MNOs can
always preempt MVNO regulation
and launch their own MVNOs as
sub-brands or in partnership with
leading global brands.
Once regulators make the decision
to enable MVNOs, they should
tackle the licensing framework. The
framework might be comprehensive—restrictive by design and akin
to those used for MNOs—or it might
be a simple resale framework, placed
entirely in the realm of a commercial agreement, under virtually no
regulatory guidelines. The former is
likely to lead to advanced MVNOs
with strong financial and operational
backing, whereas the latter will
open the door for smaller MVNOs
of various types. In the latter case,
regulators may opt to focus on the
regulation of MVNEs, and leave the
MVNE–MVNO relationship governance to commercial agreements.
Regulators will also have to address
the retail aspect of MVNOs to
ensure fair and non-abusive competition among all players in the market.
MNOs and MVNOs through the
pricing and wholesale negotiations
process, including technical aspects
such as quality of service and mobile
number portability. This is to ensure
expedited and fair compensation
for both sides. In general, regulators
should limit these rules to those that
standardize large-scale consumer
preferences and ensure a competitive
market overall. Further details of the
MNO–MVNO relationship should
be left to the commercial agreement
between the two sides.
Finally, regulators must put in place
a supportive framework to guide
Regulators must put in place a
supportive framework to guide MNOs
and MVNOs through the pricing and
wholesale negotiations process.
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The entry of MVNOs into the
MENA region has begun. MVNO
proliferation is inevitable, and it
will trigger major changes in the
telecom sector. Fundamentally, the
rise of service-based competition in
MENA telecom markets is associated with a unique set of challenges
that incumbents, investors, and
regulators should make an urgent
effort to understand and plan for.
However, the underlying opportunities are equally significant, promising to revive a rapidly saturating
telecom industry. Consumers, in
particular, stand to benefit significantly from improved choice and a
better user experience.
All key stakeholders in the MVNO
game have strategic choices to make
in how they respond to the rise of
these players in the market, and
they can benefit from other regions’
experience. MVNOs must articulate
a clear value proposition to reach
their target consumers in new and
compelling ways. MNOs must look
at partnerships with MVNOs as an
opportunity to revive their business,
and seek the most promising MVNO
candidates before their competitors
do. And regulators should play their
role to facilitate service-based competition in their markets, while meeting
the needs of both existing players and
new entrants.
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About the Authors
Bahjat El-Darwiche is a partner
with Booz & Company in Beirut.
He specializes in communications, media, and technology
and has led engagements in
the areas of telecom-sector liberalization and growth strategy
development, policymaking and
regulatory management, business development and strategic
investments, corporate and
business planning, and privatization and restructuring.
Hilal Halaoui is a partner with
Booz & Company in Riyadh.
He specializes in information
and communications technologies and has extensive experience in marketing, business
planning, technology planning,
product development, sales
strategies, and customer experience strategies.
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Adel Belcaid is a senior associate with Booz & Company
in Dubai. He specializes in
corporate and market-facing
strategies for telecommunications operators and media
publishers, including strategic
and business planning, sales
and marketing, convergence
strategies, MVNOs/MVNEs,
product management, and
organizational design.
Amr Goussous is a senior
associate with Booz & Company
in Dubai. He specializes in
globalization, growth strategies, mergers and acquisitions,
investment portfolio assessments, new business models,
MVNOs and MVNEs, and partnerships and alliances within the
telecommunications sector.
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