Airtel-Vodafone takeover is not a Sure thing yet, but MVNOs could help seal the deal

For those of us in the UK mobile market, it’s likely 2024 will be defined by whether the merger between Vodafone and Three will go through. Whatever the regulator determines, it will have a ripple effect either way. We’ll see brands step up their game looking for ways to win customers and innovate on offers. We are likely to see some change in the MVNO sector too, and we might even see more consolidation.

However, there’s another interesting story MVNOs should follow. For the first time in its history, the archipelago of Channel Islands is close to launching its first MVNO in the shape of Coop Mobile. Again, all subject to regulatory approval, the launch would be a remedial action in the wake of the likely completion of Sure’s purchase of Airtel-Vodafone.

Why should we care?

It’s all about the development of an MVNO market and the innovation that could come from it.

 It’s worth a few facts at this point. The islands of Jersey and Guernsey are home to 170,000 residents spread across an area of 70 square miles. Each island is independently governed and has its own regulator for telecoms.

Unsurprisingly, the proposed merger of Sure and Airtel-Vodafone has attracted regulatory attention. Principally, the merger would leave the islands with just two operators, limiting consumer choice. If you’ve watched other mergers around the world play out (think Ireland and Austria) then you’ll know that’s a bug bear for regulators. Stands to reason, a merger will be scrutinised, and why there will be reviews on competition and choice. We know from other examples that this leads to interesting proposals. That’s why Sure has put forward the launch of an MVNO as part of its remedial plan. Maintaining a buoyant competitive market isn’t about sticking with the status quo. Innovation – in the form of new licences – can steady the helm. 

Let’s look at the context.

The reasons for the purchase of Airtel are not dissimilar to those proposed by Three / Vodafone in the UK. Airtel-Vodafone is unable to sustain operating costs especially those associated to updating the mobile networks across the two islands. Its decision to exit the island will bring home the reality that it was making a loss. (I can’t imagine it was an easy brand decision to make with the ‘heart’, but I’m certain the ‘head for numbers’ had the final say.)

 Nevertheless, the sale, if approved, leaves a gap in the market. It might be considered a small gap at this stage in the game but closing it with a keen MVNO should turn that assumption around.

Is this really going to happen?

I would say, yes. There’s a good line of retailers that have taken the opportunity to join the MVNO community, setting the precedent for linking a value offer with mobile and combining the wealth of customer insight with targeted propositions.  

Having consulted the Coop team on the negotiations, I’m very excited about the prospect. By applying for an MVNO licence in both islands, Coop can leverage its considerable retail estate as a distribution channel and talk to its 120,000 members using its credentials as a trusted brand. I’m confident it can offer a compelling alternative to the remaining incumbents.

It’s not a done deal, I admit. In Jersey, the Jersey Competition and Regulatory Authority (JCRA) have launched a public consultation process giving consumers a voice on the proposed sale and launch of an MVNO. But it’s a significant step and I would hope it lands favourably. The authorities on Guernsey are also reviewing the proposed remedies from Sure.

As industry experts, we know that MVNOs have proven to be successful at driving competition. Currently in the UK, around a third of all customer acquisitions go to MVNOs or challenger operator sub brands and, historically, retail MVNOs have proven successful. Retailers are trusted, have a cost-effective route to market and the ability to innovate the proposition by aligning it with their core activities.

Tesco Mobile, the UKs biggest MVNO, has been particularly successful in this regard leveraging the Clubcard scheme and its “Super Market Mobile” credentials, similarly Asda Mobile, iD mobile (by Currys) Superdrug Mobile and even Your Coop Mobile offer are all available in the UK.

In Germany, Aldi and Lidl also operate MVNOs and we are seeing retail MVNOs as one of the more successful early entrants to the MVNO market in places like South Africa with brands like PNP (Pick and Pay) and Shop Rite Knect rated as ‘favourite’ brands these days. 

You could say that the outcome of the application for a licence is in the hands of the public. And I think that’s good. In my experience, the public will want choice and will favour the underdog to give them something the other operators can’t. Of course, the regulators need to review other aspects alongside, but I suspect gauging the public opinion will help sway the vote.

As the year unfolds, I think we should expect an historic outcome for the Channel Islands, and I’d recommend MVNOs watch to see how the move is executed. There’s a lot to learn from other markets, especially so in fledging ones.

If you’re thinking about launching an MVNO in a new market or need to drive competition with a differentiated offer, then call me. My team can help you appraise the market, negotiate the deal, and build the winning business model.

James Gray

About James Gray

James has over 20 years of experience working in the telecoms and retail industries. He is an expert in subscription-based business models, CRM, direct and indirect channel management and major proposition development and launches. He has held a number of Marketing Director and Consumer Director roles.