From Beijing to Basildon: Why the UK MVNO market is set for a Far Eastern shake-up

The UK MVNO market is an ever-evolving landscape. The struggle for market share is played out by the Titans of Virgin and Tesco Mobile, and the plucky new-starts like Delight Mobile. However, as the curtain was drawing on 2017, a new player entered the game. A first for the UK MVNO arena, a red flag with five yellow stars was driven into the Telecoms turf.

China had arrived.

CMLink, a brand owned by China Mobile allow customers to order a free CMLink SIM card from their official website. The product is aimed at the UK’s Anglo-Chinese population be they immigrants, students, temporary workers, or tourists, and provides them with voice and data services. More specifically, it will provide three main features:

  • CMLink is currently the only MVNO service with no extra fees on data, minutes and texts across the UK, selected destinations in the EU, mainland China and Hong Kong SAR.
  • CMLink subscribers can make free calls to almost 900 million China Mobile users in China.
  • The CMLink MVNO offers a ‘Data Growth Pack’ which rewards subscribers with an extra 5% of data allowance each month, up to a total of 200% more data.

At a glance, the China Mobile-backed brand might not be an overt cause for concern for the other occupants of the UK MVNO marketplace. Though CMLink provides compelling services, it’s a product aimed at a niche audience and thus the threat to market share would seem to be minimal. This though may be an unwise assumption to make.

The brains and brawn of China Mobile

China Mobile have done their homework. Research conducted by the company discovered that there are close to half a million (433,000) Anglo-Chinese people in the UK. This includes around 80,000 Chinese students. In the first half of 2017 alone, Britain welcomed 115,000 Chinese tourists, a figure representing a 47% year-on-year increase. China Mobile, it appears, have a sizeable and ready-made market without needing to break sweat.

The other factor to consider is the sheer size of China Mobile. The operator is the largest on the planet with a customer base pushing 900 million. Put differently, around 1 in 8 human beings on Earth is a China Mobile customer.

The UK MVNO marketplace hasn’t had to contend with a competitor of this size before. However, size and a ready-made market isn’t all China Mobile boast. They’re also only just getting started in terms of global expansion.

At a recent conference, China Mobile chairman and CEO, Dr Li Feng, asserted that, “China Mobile’s ‘Big Connectivity’ strategy affirms its vision of becoming a leading global operator with innovative digital services.”

Speaking specifically about the company’s foray into the UK, he added, “We expect the UK launch to be a new chapter in China Mobile delivering compelling digital services that break down barriers of communication for global consumers while fostering open exchange between Belt and Road companies.”

What does all this mean for the UK MVNO marketplace?

Feng’s words will no doubt cast anxiety into the heart of the UK MVNO market. Rather than speaking of servicing Anglo-Chinese consumers specifically, he makes clear that China Mobile have a global expansionist agenda. They may have designs on providing solutions for the Anglo-Chinese initially, but whether this is the extent of their ambition remains to be seen.

One thing is clear though, China Mobile with their CMLink product are here to make an impact, and BT, who will be providing their leading EE network for them to use, will be helping them do this. The pressure then falls on CMLink’s competitors to do one thing; innovate.

Before they really start flexing their muscles, current UK MVNOs might want to have a look at their current service offerings. If there’s space to innovate with new and existing products, now might be the time to do it.

As vibrant a place as the UK MVNO marketplace has been, and as many industry heavyweights have entered the arena, there can be little doubt that China Mobile present a different level of challenge.