Customers of one of Sprint's 100+ MVNOs may not even realize they're using the Sprint network, but the carrier is very much involved behind the scenes, running the services, enabling the various business models, and supporting the customer experience.
Sprint has been supporting MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), companies that wholesale its network access, for 20 years, but its wholesale business has picked up in earnest in the past year. For some of the brands, enterprises, CLECs, or startups it supports, Sprint does nothing more than lease its network, but for others, it runs the entirety of the business, including the systems, processes, customer care, online Web enablement, and warehousing and distribution services, through its Single Source Enablement (SSE) program. (See Sprint Builds an MVNO Factory.)
Some of these startups like TextNow use Sprint's 3G CDMA network, others like FreedomPop have used its LTE network from the very day it launched, while others like Republic Wireless and Karma only use Sprint's networks where WiFi isn't available. (See FreedomPop Jumps on Sprint LTE, Sprint Adds Karma to Its LTE Network, and Republic Wireless Revamps Its WiFi Handoff.)
Some, including FreedomPop, Ting, and NetZero have unusual business models that undercut even Sprint's data pricing, and rely on social networks and sharing to grow plans. And, others, like iWireless, are attached to an established brand -- Kroger grocery in this case, offering wireless service as part of a loyalty program. All offer their own smartphones and are able to tap into most of Sprint's portfolio through its BYOD policy. (See Ting: Bad Name, Great Idea, Meet the New US Wireless Operators, and Sprint Offers BYOD Option to MVNOs.)
Supporting this wide swatch of companies might sound like a Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) nightmare, but as Karen Freitag, Sprint's vice president of wholesale sales, describes it, the MVNO factory is a well-oiled machine.
In fact, unlike T-Mobile US Inc. , which completed replaced its legacy IT system to support its uncarrier transformation, Sprint has opted not to replace its IT processes at all. Its Emerging & Wholesale Solutions business unit has been using the same IT infrastructure since day one, just making significant upgrades over time.
According to Freitag, Sprint's billing system for MVNOs is a variant of its overall retail capabilities that Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX) has been supporting for the past five years. Sprint, as a whole, is constantly looking at service delivery and tweaking the system as needed, but there's nothing specific done at the MVNO level to support such a wide swatch of billing plans. That said, the VP says there's also never been anything in wholesale that Sprint's systems have held them back from doing.
"The corporation sees wholesale as strategic, so anytime we develop IT systems, services, and billing, we always keep in mind the wholesale customers," Freitag says. "We're always included in conversations, planning, and upgrades. When you have that approach, it makes it a lot easier."
Job number one is making sure the initial MVNO launch goes smoothly, and Freitag says Sprint has operational support people on hand to look out for red flags and issues that might arise. Sprint's large wholesale organization also has dedicated sales and marketing staff with full P&L responsibility. And, when MVNO customers call into customer support, they are calling the same center as a Sprint customer. Some of the agents will be specific to the MVNO, but, if not, all have knowledge of the brand, Freitag says.
"It's critical for us to have dedicated operations and IT staff in wholesale," she adds. "We have to work back with the rest of the organization, but we have the process refined, and know what needs to be done."
In its quest to make its MVNO strategy more than just a way to monetize excess capacity, Sprint is also exploring how to use data analytics across its MVNOs and for specific MVNOs to improve their services. Freitag says it's working with a new vendor on this, although she didn't offer up a name.
All of the US wireless operators are waking up (again) to the opportunity in wholesaling their network access, but Sprint is clearly being the most aggressive. While others, like Verizon Wireless , are reserving MVNOs for their 3G networks, Sprint is saying, "take your pick." It's not being particularly selective, even letting those with potentially competitive offerings on board, and it's offering them any level of support they need.
It's still early days in both the MVNO revolution and Sprint's network evolution, and a number of the MVNOs will likely fail. But, Sprint sees it as nothing but upside for the carrier who gains a much-needed customer whether they know they're on Sprint or not.
"We really view wholesale as strategic to the corporation," Freitag says. "We've been committed to wholesale for a long time, and we haven't wavered. Sometimes our competitors are in; sometimes they are out, but, for us, it's strategic, not just a way to monetize extra capacity on the network."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading