Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is bringing his social action-oriented mobile service to the U.S.
The People’s Operator, as the venture is known, is both a mobile phone service and an attempt at a new sort of social network centered around donations and community service. The social network, launching at tpo.com, has typical features like following certain people, posting photos and status updates, plus the ability to directly donate to charities.
Its mobile service has been up and running in the United Kingdom with more than 30,000 customers as of May and is now expanding to the U.S., offering cellphone service on top of Sprint’s network, acting as one of a growing number of so-called mobile virtual network operators. Customers will get to direct 10 percent of their monthly wireless bill to the cause of their choice. Plans include a $32-per-month option that offers unlimited talk and text plus 2 gigabytes of data.
“Americans are very strong on charitable giving,” said Wales, who joined TPO as an adviser last year and became executive chairman in December. Wales said his hope is that charities will be attracted to TPO because it offers them a cheaper way to take donations and that their supporters will sign up for TPO’s phone service to help further support the causes. TPO’s network will not charge a commission and asks only that charities cover the bank fees associated with their donations, Wales said.
Social action-based phone businesses are not new. Already there is Credo Mobile, which pledges to give 1 percent of your charges to various causes. It is the wireless companion to Working Assets, which has been doing the same thing for long-distance calling since 1985.
As wireless carriers open their networks up to others, such services are becoming more common. Set to launch this fall is Pride Wireless, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and supporters, promising donations to the community, an LGBT-led workforce as well as “fabulous” customer service.
“We’re going to make it campy and fun,” CEO Patrick Adams told Re/code. “Our belief is that cellphone service has become a commodity.”
That, he said, makes it tougher for the big carriers to compete broadly and opens the door to new competitors directly targeting a particular segment of the market.
Pride Wireless also hopes to give back to the LGBT community but Adams says the size of the donations will start out small as the company builds its service, which will run on T-Mobile’s network. At 100,000 customers, he says the company can be profitable and afford to give back more.
In the meantime, Pride Wireless has launched an Indiegogo campaign which Adams said he hopes will help reduce the need for outside investors that may be less aligned with the company’s social objectives and allow the company to begin signing up customers by October. Plans start at $30 for unlimited talk and text and range to a $90 family plan that includes two lines and 3GB of data.
“We’re not asking you to switch teams, just carriers,” the company says in its promotional materials. Adams is already out recruiting, having braved a significant rainstorm to pass out 5,000 flyers at last weekend’s San Diego Pride event.
But both Wales’s TPO and Adams’s Pride Wireless face an uphill battle given the huge financial muscle of the big carriers. While they can partner to use one of their networks, MVNOs typically can’t match the kind of device selection, rate options or other services provided by the major carriers — limitations that have kept them a rather tiny part of the mobile landscape.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.