In a press announcement released today, Virgin Mobile, the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) launched by Sir Richard Branson on 12 November 1999, claims to have confirmed its place as the UK’s fastest growing mobile operator ever – breaking the three million customer mark in less than four years. Virgin Mobile reported record quarterly performances in the first half of 2003, outstripping its larger UK rivals in signing up 485,000 users while they collectively lost 39,000 accounts. Today’s announcement means that Virgin has reached the milestone in record time, bettering Orange and T-Mobile, which took five and six years respectively, Vodafone, which needed twelve years, and the incumbent’s former mobile arm O2, which required 13. The achievement is seen as a further feather in the cap for the operator which was also the fastest UK operator to return a profit, doing so in its third year of trading. Commenting on the announcement, Sir Richard said that the continuing strong performance showed that the operator, which uses T-Mobile’s network to provide airtime to its customers, is now a major player in the crowded UK market, adding that ‘Virgin Mobile is ripping market share out of a staid industry’.
However, whilst it is laudable that Virgin Mobile has continued to grow in an increasingly competitive and saturated mobile market, it has to be remembered that its rivals’ early years of operation were hampered by the fact that the market was in its infancy, handset prices were high, coverage and service quality were relatively poor, and UK consumers were not switched on to widespread availability of low-cost wireless services as they are today. Virgin Mobile’s performance has to be placed in context with the halcyon days of the industry in the late 1990s, when the operators were reporting high annual subscriber growth rates and low-cost pre-paid options made wireless telephony attractive to the masses. In the period from 1997 to 1999 the number of mobile subscribers in the UK more than doubled from 8.47 million to 19.55 million.