Elephants or ants: Will MVNOs make a dent in national carriers?

There is a revolution happening at the low end of the cellular market, with new operators launching services that cost less than existing data plans from the big four operators in the U.S. But can these startups grow large enough to change the way mobile data is priced and sold in the U.S.? That was the question that the CEOs of of three new MVNOs tried to answer at GigaOM Mobilize during a panel discussion with senior writer Kevin Fitchard.

Eliott Noss, CEO of Tucows, which launched the Ting mobile service, said it was likely that his company and other MVNOs would be like a “revenge of the ants,” as his and 50 other MVNOs innovated from the bottom up, but didn’t really disrupt the top players.

David Morken, the co-founder and CEO of Bandwidth.com, which operates the Republic Wireless service, vehemently disagreed, saying “I’m not an ant. I think Free [a French MVNO] is a great example of where the market is going.” Free launched a Wi-Fi based mobile phone service that has been highly successful in France. But Free also had sold a broadband product for years, so it already had an established customer base.

Morken, whose Republic Wireless service also makes use of in-home and in-office Wi-Fi to serve of the majority of the plan’s data, said that in 19 months he hopes to have turned the mobile market on its head. While he refused to answer questions about how much cellular data his users need each month, he told me in a conversation before the panel that the current usage allowed the company to be profitable. “If software is eating the world like Marc Andreessen says, it’s eating at a table set by Wi-Fi,” Morken said.

Check out the rest of our Mobilize 2012 coverage here, and the live stream can be found here.

Watch live streaming video from mobilize2012 at livestream.com