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Jimmy Wales's Plan to Save the World With Mobile Phones

He's chairman of a U.K.-based wireless company that takes 10 percent off the top of every subscriber's bill and gives it to charity.

Joi Ito / Wikipedia

Jimmy Wales, the founder and public face of Wikipedia would like to give $1 billion to charity, but he doesn’t have $1 billion to give.

Today, Wales appeared on the stage at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich to announce he may have a way to do it after all. Wales announced that he has joined The People’s Operator, a U.K.-based wireless carrier that donates a portion of subscriber bills to charity. He will be chairman of the company.

“The basic concept is that 10 percent of your bill goes directly to a cause of your choice, straight off the top,” he said.

With roughly 3.5 billion wireless subscribers around the world paying an average of $13 a month, “If we had just a two-percent market share around the world, that would mean a billion dollars a year going to charities,” he said. “If we get one percent market share, it would take two years to get to my billion dollars.”

Based in London and launched in late 2012, The People’s Operator is a for-profit business which aims to distribute part of its revenue to charitable causes. Not only does it take the 10 percent off the bills of its subscribers, but 25 percent of its overall profits will go to a foundation that will fund other charities.

The company operates as an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, with no network infrastructure, but which leases its capacity from carriers that do have a network.

Wales said that for TPO to give so much money away, it will have to operate on a lean budget. “The money has to come from the promotional and marketing side,” he said. “We won’t be able to do massive ad campaigns and billboards, and all the flyers in the mail…It has to spread through the community. I think we can get a point where we’re signing people up, and they’re signing their friends up.”

TPO is running in the UK now and the plan is to expand to other countries, though he didn’t get specific. “We’re looking for different deals in different places around the world. We’re looking for investors to help us ramp this company up and go really big.”

TPO subscribers bring their own phones and swap in a new SIM card, and then pick a charitable cause of their choice which receives the proceeds from the 10 percent taken from the phone bill. In the UK it offers an unlimited talk and text plan for 14.99 pounds (about $25) a month.

The move suits Wales, he said, considering his strong, personal interest in mobile technology and the impact he thinks it can have around the world. “Just look at the size of the wireless industry,” he said. “When you see all the money that’s sloshing around in the marketing budgets, wouldn’t it be better for the world if that money could be channeled in a different way?”

This article originally appeared on

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