The mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is a concept that has been around for more than a decade, but with the advent of 5G and network slicing, the virtual operator of the future could look a lot different than it does today.
Today, MVNOs like Boost Mobile or Tracfone offer wireless services to consumers, but they do not deploy their own network infrastructure. Instead, they pay wireless operators like Sprint for the network capacity that their customers consume.
But in the 5G world, some experts believe the MVNO will take on a very different role.
For example, a wireless operator that has deployed 5G could offer an MVNO a dedicated slice of its network for carrying traffic, but the MVNO could then deploy its own virtual network functions (VNFs).
Operators provide the radio access network (RAN) to the MVNO. But the variance occurs in the layers of the network the MVNO deploys. It could be anything from network function up to application, said Dan Warren, head of 5G research at Samsung’s R&D Center in the U.K. “This would give the potential to the MVNO for running the network apart from the access layer. They could have their own network functions.”
Warren added that the VNFs could be separated from the physical network and placed in a cloud or they could exist close to the subscriber, like at the mobile network edge, to provide lower latency.
Marc-Antoine Boutin, director of product management at service assurance firm CENX, said there are advantages to taking traffic off the wireless network and keeping it closer to the edge of the network so that both operators and MVNOs can provide new applications. “If you have access to a data center, or a public data center, you can assemble more creative services,” he said.
Marginalizing the Operator
Of course, one of the downsides of this scenario is that the mobile operator could become marginalized. In other words, if the MVNO works independently of the operator by managing the applications on the network, operators could find themselves looking more like a pipe and less like a service provider.
However, Warren said it really depends upon the operators’ overall business strategy. If they secure big contracts with enterprises like car-makers or healthcare providers or even manufacturers that want a network slice to provide services to their customers, the operator could achieve scale quickly. “It’s an interesting approach for mobile operators that want to get large-scale customers on their network and monetize it,” he said.
Clarification: Mobile operators always provide the radio access network (RAN) layer. In the original article it said mobile operators could decide to provide the radio access network (RAN) layer.