Q&A with Lynda Burton, Director of Wholesale at Three

With less than ten days until the MVNOs Europe 2018, the MVNOs Series spoke with Lynda Burton. Director of Wholesale at Three, Lynda owns MVNO, white-label partnerships, bulk messaging, carrier services and international roaming functions. In this interview, Lynda shares her predictions for 5G, its benefits to customers and partners, and the most exciting use cases. 

What are your predictions for 5G and what benefits will it bring to operators’ customers and partners?

We see the launch of 5G as a significant impact upon the market and one from which Three intend to get maximum advantage. We have more 5G spectrum than any other operator and with our plans for a fully virtualised network well advanced, we will be able to leverage all the benefits of 5G. Thanks to the rollout of 5G, our spectrum and new technologies like Massive MIMO, our network will be able to support almost thirty times the data that it does today – that means we can bring on more customers fully exploiting our wholesale business opportunities. It is really exciting for our team.  It also opens up new connected customer verticals, connecting people to people, people to things, and things to things in both business and consumer segments.

Can you also tell us a bit more regarding 5G use cases? Why MVNOs should be excited about it?

In the short term 5G is going to allow customers to do more of what they are doing now but much faster. In the consumer space this could mean a far superior low latency gaming experience and removing the need for fixed broadband – so few millennial customers value their fixed line, it is the natural progression for them to become a fully mobile connected household.
Longer term we see a significant opportunity in connectivity for business applications, whether that is connected health, car or other industries that need high bandwidth, low latency services, or the IOT applications where there are many millions of devices utilising the network.

Finally, our fully virtualised 5G network will allow “network slicing” effectively allocating portions of the network to a particular organisation or vertical. This is cutting edge stuff and the use cases are not fully defined yet, but because of the investments we have made in 5G we have the capability and can work internally and externally on how we bring it to market.

How are networks getting ready for 5G and how that includes MVNOs? i.e. Will operators ensure MVNOs have access to their wholesale 5G networks?

Operators across Europe are working on their 5G plans. At Three UK we have been planning meticulously for 5G for a long time. Our network and IT transformation, moving us to a completely new and fully virtualised core network, increasing the number of data centres, adding new mobile backhaul with SSE and redeveloping our IT systems, is progressing very well. When completed the core network we are building in partnership with Nokia will be a world first. Without this you cannot fully leverage all the capabilities of 5G. We have already secured more 5G spectrum than any other operator and this opens up a significant opportunity for us.

With regards to our MVNO partners, they are already briefed on our 5G strategy and we are continuing to update them. Historically Three UK has always offered our MVNOs network parity with Three Retail and this means that in the future MVNOs will be able to access 5G. We had the same approach to 4G access.  This was quite different to the approach of other operators who sought to retain premium services for their own retail customers, giving MVNO customers a more basic service – some of the larger MVNOs only gained access in the past two years. We don’t believe that holding new technologies back from our partners is a model that works. If we help them to grow, we’ll grow and that’s the model we will bring to 5G.

How can operators help their MVNOs to face the changing ecosystem? i.e. Are operators willing to reduce their wholesale rates if RLAH has a profound impact on their MVNOs’ businesses? Will operators be more flexible and work with MVNOs to negotiate their roaming deals?

That’s a lot of questions! Certainly at Three UK we have always had a flexible approach to working with our MVNOs, whether that is technical or commercial models. We believe that our success is driven from our MVNO’s success, so we are always open to having a dialogue if an MVNO needs our support, and that is on anything not just RLAH. We like to work out challenges together, we really do see our MVNO relationships as partnerships.

With regards to whether we would negotiate roaming deals on an MVNO’s behalf, we already offer a managed service on roaming for our MVNO lite customers, leveraging our roaming relationships with over 190 networks globally.

How do operators tackle the increased data demand from their customers?

Three’s own retail customers use more than 3x the average data consumption each month and our customers have recently voted us the best network for data. Delivering high speed and high bandwidth is our heritage – our network was designed for data.  All the projections have data demand growing exponentially over the next 5-10 years and 5G will help us manage that capacity in a cost-effective way.

What are your views on delivering a fully digital MVNOs? What do you consider the pros and cons of this model?

There a couple of ways that an MVNO could be considered fully digital, it could be that the MVNO can only be accessed via digital channels. So, customers buy online, access their account online and are served through online channels such as webchat. I definitely believe that for the right customer segments this is a model that really works. We only need to look at many of the other digital services like Netflix and Spotify to see that consumers are comfortable in buying service in a 100% digital channel, and I think it’s an area where we will continue to see growth. Obviously, there will be some segments of customers who prefer a face-to-face service, or the ability to call a call centre for help. In the short terms these customers are unlikely to want to migrate to a fully digital experience. But this is at the core of the MVNO ecosystem. MVNOs target different customers segments and offer them an experience which is differentiated from the mass market and serves that customer segment’s needs.

The second way an MVNO could be considered fully digital is if all the calls are handled through digital channels, in app calling, sometimes referred to as AppVNOs. Three offer a product that supports this model, our OTT virtual numbers. This allows organisations to set up a mobile calling experience within an App, for example if you wanted to have a mobile number in a dating app. It’s relatively early days for the product but we are seeing some interesting use cases and as always we are keen to exploit new technologies and ideas for our wholesale customers.

What are the best strategies when approaching customers via new channels? How can MNOs and MVNOs develop and implement their digital strategies better?

Accessing new customers through new and different channels is critical to the success of an MVNO partnership. Our recent partnership with Superdrug is a great example of this. The relationship enables Superdrug to add new benefits to customers within their loyalty scheme giving them a fantastic mobile offer and double loyalty points on all their spend in Superdrug.  For Three, we get to bring new and extremely loyal customers to our network through an entirely new channel.

In the Superdrug example we are using both retail and digital channels, all the joining journeys can be undertaken online, including setting up your SIM after buying it in a Superdrug store. The online account web pages and web help allows customers to service their account and get help through flexible and lower cost digital channels. Much of the infrastructure that supports this has been developed by Three as part of our white label platform, while Superdrug bring their outstanding understanding of their customers and how best to target and sell to them through stores and digital loyalty media. It’s an exciting proposition and opens up more opportunities for brands who may not have considered their loyalty scheme as a channel for telecoms services.

What are your views on network virtualization and its impact on operators?

I have already mentioned that virtualisation is crucial to fully leveraging the benefits of 5G but there are other enormous benefits that it will bring. It will allow us to be far more agile, delivering change in the network faster and ultimately allowing us to develop new products and services far faster than the competition, reacting to the ever-changing demands of our retail and wholesale customers. In short it will give us and our partners a significant competitive edge.

Automation is a key part of our network virtualisation story that will enable many activities that are manual today to be automated in the future, as well as providing instant self-healing capabilities improving network availability and reliability.

Hear from Lynda Burton at the MVNOs Europe 2018, taking place in London, 6 – 7 November 2018. Lynda will deliver a presentation on ‘Preparing for 5G – setting your MVNO up for 5G success’. Book your tickets now.