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Brussels mobile phone cooperative Neibo takes on the big guns

Quentin Verstappen poses for the photographer during the launch of Belgium's first cooperative mobile telephony company, in Brussels, Saturday 27 October 2018. BELGA PHOTO HATIM KAGHAT
10:40 16/12/2020

It is not unusual these days to hear about cooperatives. Many sectors, such as banking, agriculture, food, and mobility have seen groups coming together with their own models and concepts for their particular areas of expertise, often in the face of huge pressure from those large, established corporations which dominate the scene. It is unusual, however, to hear of one trying to make its mark in the highly competitive mobile communications sector. But that’s exactly what Neibo is doing.

Neibo is a mobile phone cooperative, launched in Brussels in October 2018, which has just offered its first subscriptions. According to Neibo, around 500 of its 2,300 members have taken up a subscription, which is a discreet but solid start to life among the big names. Neibo's services are currently in the testing phase, and the cooperative hopes to go beyond its members and attract 12,000 subscribers within 18 months.

As a virtual operator or MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator), one which therefore operates without antennas or technical facilities, Neibo is trying to make its own space in a market where around 30 competitors have already been established in Belgium since 2010. Not all, however, have survived. These MVNOs, who dich not have technical infrastructure but rent those of the major historical operators, network operators such as Proximus, Orange or Telenet/Base, tend to struggle, go out of business, or get swallowed up by the large media groups. Neibo has already chosen to work with Orange, with the emphasis on ‘with’.

"To survive, you have to reach a critical mass of subscribers (between 100,000 and 300,000 subscriptions) in order to be profitable,” says David Wiame, a telecommunications expert at consumer protection organisation, Test Achats. “But at the same time, the competition is tough, and the operators already well installed can provide extremely attractive offers. It is therefore difficult to gain new market share."

With such strong and ruthless competition in the sector, Neibo will have to stand out to survive. Quentin Verstappen, the managing director of Neibo, agrees wholeheartedly, and emphasises the co-op's ethical stance. "The difference we have to other operators is that we offer transparency and participation,” he says. “By subscribing to a minimum of €20, the co-operators, our members, in addition to the possibility of obtaining a subscription with a slight discount, have the right to participate in important decisions.”

Verstappen explains that members of the cooperative can participate in Neibo’s General Assembly and can vote on the subjects submitted to it: allocation of dividends, rebates, new investments, allocation of potential benefits in the social economy or environmental projects in Belgium.

According to David Wiame, targeted customers will probably have to agree to make concessions on tariffs. And for that, it will have to be convinced by the philosophy of the Neibo project.

So, could Neibo make it into the big leagues? Everyone will have to wait and see. The campaign to attract the numbers it needs to survive, and flourish is not expected to begin until next spring.

Written by Nick Amies