Helio is a mobile virtual network operator. MVNOs sell phones and service plans just like ordinary mobile network operators, but they don’t own cell towers and spectrum and all the other baggage that makes up a network. Instead, they lease all that from companies that do, creating virtual networks. They’re hot because established mobile operators like Cingular and Verizon Wireless have been too busy selling plain-vanilla plans to Middle America to worry about niche markets. With a virtual setup, a startup can pick any market that’s not adequately served, rent capacity from an existing network operator, come up with phones and services that appeal to its niche, and go.
Helio, set to begin service this spring, is going after a niche that’s broader in age – 18 to 32 – but narrower in focus: trendsetters, gadget geeks, gotta-have-it-now guys with credit to burn. It will operate on the high-speed 3G networks that are essential for music, video, and games. It’s also promising handsets that haven’t been seen in the US and services that go beyond the basic music and video offerings from Sprint Nextel and Verizon. And while the company is as much a marketing ploy as any other MVNO, it feels almost like a cause.