For those of you who think Apple’s iPhone deal with AT&T looked an awful lot like an MVNO relationship, there’s a reason. Several blogs (MacNN and AppleInsider, to name two) dug through a recently published patent application Apple filed in 2006 and discovered that Apple was considering some kind of hyper-virtual operator business model, in which it would connect to any of multiple different operators on the fly, depending on who could offer the best rates at any given moment.
On one end would be an Apple server that tracked each iPhone user’s location in real time. On the other end would be a gaggle of network operators Apple had resale agreements with. Each would set determined rates for specific regions and for specific times, and the Apple server would sort through that data selecting the cheapest rate at the time for the customers. Apple also made provisions for customers selecting their own operator and accompanying rate plan based on the same data, allowing them to change operators depending on the time of day or region.
That’s all fairly complicated since the typical MVNO signs a network deal with one operator and sticks to it. There is precedence among the large resellers like Tracfone, which sign multiple operator agreements, but I doubt they have the capability to switch between operators on the fly based on real-time pricing info. While those capabilities may be in Apple’s hands right now, the carriers probably aren’t equipped just yet, said Alex Besen, who heads the Washington mobile data consultancy The Besen Group. “Not yet,” Besen said. “As they move toward next-generation networks, they will.”
So will this MVNO model ever appear? It’s doubtful. Apple seems to be doing pretty well with its partnership deals at the moment. And if open access really takes off in the next few years, there may not even be reason to consider it.