UN + Start-Up Seek to Get Poor Online with Cell Numbers

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Startup Aims to Get the Poor Online With Phone Numbers

By Stephen Lawson, IDG News

U.K. startup Movirtu plans to help 3 million or more people in poor countries use mobile services by giving them personal phone numbers, not phones.

Working with a U.N.-affiliated initiative called Business Call to Action (BCtA), Movirtu will offer the numbers, which it calls mobile identities, through commercial carriers in developing countries in Africa and South Asia. People in those countries who typically borrow phones from others will be able to log into the carrier's network and use their own prepaid minutes and bits of data.

The service is called Cloud Phone, though it operates within a carrier's own infrastructure rather than on the Internet as a classic cloud service would. Having a personal mobile identity can save users money in two ways, according to Ramona Liberoff, executive vice president of marketing, strategy and planning at Movirtu. First, they can use mobile services without buying a phone, which is a luxury even at US$15 or $20 for people making $1 or $2 per day.

Second, the cost of prepaid service from a carrier typically is less than what consumers in those countries pay someone to borrow a phone, she said. Though it's customary in many of these countries to lend a phone to someone in need, the borrower is also expected to pay the lender for the usage. The average savings from using regular prepaid service instead is estimated at about $60 per year, Liberoff said.

The service will help people to use mobile banking, insurance and farming assistance services as well as make phone calls, Liberoff said. Some of these services currently can only be delivered to individuals and not to someone sharing a phone. Personal mobile identities could be a boon to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that want to use mobile technology.

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