In 2006, the year prior to the first iPhone’s release, Apple filed an MVNO patent called “Dynamic carrier selection.” Granted recently, this patent could bring forth a mobile virtual network operator system that would let the company determine its own cellular services. Or in other words, if Cupertino ever sees this through, it could basically become its own cellular carrier.
MVNOs are nothing new; in fact, most of us have heard of them before, whether we know it or not. (Think Boost Mobile, Virgin USA, even Tracfone.) These are mobile’s “little guys” who don’t have a cellular infrastructure or allocation of radio spectrum — sort of like a carrier without a network — so they pay the big carriers to use their networks.
(The patent even mentions Verizon and Sprint as prime examples of major carriers that MVNOs buy minutes from.) The price is paid in bulk, like a shopper buying 50 rolls of toilet paper at Costco, and the wireless minutes get rebranded and resold to consumers under a different name. This practice has been going on for quite a while, but Apple’s interest in this could put some pretty big stakes on the table.
Let’s say Cupertino moves forward as an MVNO. Obviously, we know there’s an enormous audience of iPhone users, so the carriers could find themselves bidding — essentially competing — to make the best offers.
For you and me, the end users, here’s how it could work: Our devices would communicate with servers to check rates/bids from wireless providers in our areas. Then our phones would let us select a carrier (or Apple would automatically choose the best option). There’s even the possibility that our wireless bill could be paid via iTunes subscriptions.
But that’s not all. Apple’s idea is to let the carrier network change dynamically, for different rates, locations and times. You (or your phone) would constantly be using whichever one gives you the best value at any given moment.
Once upon a time, I would’ve thought this was a wacky idea. We just don’t see any tech companies like Apple getting involved in the MVNO game. But now? Well, I’m not so sure. Obviously, Apple’s not interested in exclusive carrier relationships any more.
Verizon’s iPhone joining AT&T’s in the marketplace this week is the latest testament to that. And not only has Cupertino been paying a lot of attention to subscriptions lately, but a recent teardown revealed a world mode chip capable of supporting dual CDMA and GSM networks.
There have also been rumors as recently as last Fall suggesting that Apple was developing a new type of flash-based SIM card, which could support different wireless networks without having to be swapped out.
So it’s not that far-fetched that all this could culminate in something bigger down the road. And if there was anyone that could revolutionize the way we get and pay for our mobile service, I’m sure it would be Apple.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. These providers would absolutely hate the whole concept of “dynamic carrier selection.” It basically takes all the power away from them and puts it in Apple’s and/or its iPhone users’ hands.
And they certainly wouldn’t want to see this become a trend. It’s also worth noting that Apple tends to file a mountain of patents for all sort of things, much of which never sees the light of day. It’s more than possible that this could the case here.
Even so, it’s interesting to see that this could offer a glimpse into what’s on Apple’s mind and where it could go next. What do you think? Could this be the beginning of a totally new model for cellular service? If so, would you embrace it? Let us know what your opinions are below.