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"Telco Lite" MVNO model is the new challenger

When you’ve been around a while, as I have, cynicism about the corporate world is something you carry around with you as constant baggage.

But even this cynical – and slightly older – media warrior had to smile when visiting Singapore’s Circles Life a couple of weeks ago.

Located in a basic industrial building in a not too fashionable part of the city, we were ushered into a much used meeting room to be met by the bold proclamation on the white board: “How does it feel to be working for the greatest telecommunications company in the world!”

My natural inclination was to revert to type and cynically roll my eyes at the naïve boosterism of it all, but I have to say that in the course of my visit I did start to understand what co-founder Abhishek Gupta and his team are getting so excited about.

Here was the adrenaline of the start-up, the idea that something built from the ground up could disrupt the established Singapore market and create something sustainable on a new model.

Circles Life began its existence as Liberty Wireless, using the word Liberty because Gupta and his colleagues believed it offered freedom from the established mobile offerings.

Now, Circles Life is a reference to the connected lifestyle of the 25-40 year old target market, people who want their smartphone to be at the center of everything they do in life, from banking to concert and film tickets to taxis or Uber and travel.

Circles Life point of difference is that all of these things are purchased seamlessly. Yes, its a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) but beyond that the model seems to have been tweaked and improved.

There are no stores to visit, no contracts, and everything is customizable through the Circles app.

The mantra is to return power to customers and give them the tools to design their own functionalities and set their usage. It is not competing so much on price, but on usability.

The charging model is data-centric, and there’s even a rewards type scheme where customers can raise their data caps by – for example – referring a friend.

It seems all very simple but there’s clearly been an intense amount of work done on the customer facing front end, and perhaps even more at the back end in configuring the OSS/BSS systems.

And of course the cloud is central to all of this. Circles Life couldn’t exist without the cloud because without it, creating and delivering all the data, storage and analytics on-premises would be so expensive as to completely undermine the business model.

As it is, the “asset lite” MVNO model being pursued by Circles Life doesn’t need as many customers as established legacy networks to be sustainable.

Indeed, given the competition in Singapore geographical expansion seems a natural move. There are three established players, one of which – M1 – which leases its network to Circles Life – and expectations that two other MVNOs will join the market shortly.

At the end of the day it was refreshing to see someone trying something different with the MVNO model.

Australian consumers have had Virgin Mobile in their market for ten years or so, but does it really offer much different to services offered by its owner, Optus, a SingTel subsidiary?

Circles Life would seem to be offering something extra, and even this old curmudgeon likes that because it develops the market a bit further.

I’d hesitate to say – as the whiteboard claimed – that it’s the best telecommunications company in the world – but, but Circles Life is sufficiently different to be a brand worth watching.