Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Do-It-Yourself Cell Phone Network Revolution

Do-it-yourself wireless was inevitable, says Juha Christensen, Sonopia's founder and CEO. With consumers increasingly demanding media customization, from ring tones to YouTube video, he says it was only a matter of time before "micro-segmentation" found its way to wireless.

If you're tired of dealing with big cell phone companies, here's an idea: Start your own.

That's what Rod Farthing did. A part-time college professor in Toledo, Ohio, Farthing launched "Farthing Mobile" a few weeks ago. His service has eight subscribers, all family members and close friends, "but anybody can join."

Farthing says he decided to start his network -- a so-called MVNO or mobile virtual network operator, which transmits calls on one of the existing wireless networks -- because he was tired of hassling with the big carriers. "I'm unhappy with them all."

Do-It-Yourself Wireless

Farthing is a leader in what could become a revolution in wireless: do-it-yourself cell phone networks.

At least that's the hope of Sonopia, the company that enables Farthing Mobile and about 1,000 other new MVNOs, including: Yoga Phone, Obama for President Mobile and Peterman Mobile (dedicated to cat-lovers, it is named for the founder's 17-pound Maine Coone).

The company recently began offering individuals and groups the ability to set up a personalized wireless service free by going to its Web site -- www.sonopia.com.

No need to worry about back-room details, like billing and customer support , for the service. Sonopia handles all that. Prices for the service plans are competitive with name-brand providers.

An added bonus: Sonopia pays virtual network founders 3 percent to 8 percent -- depending on the number of subscribers -- of their service's monthly revenue.

Customized Services

Services can be customized in a variety of ways.

The Long Island Ducks baseball team (LI Ducks Mobile) is working on a "quack" ring tone, says General Manager Michael Pfaff. Also in the works: weather updates, team news and special promotions, all sent via cell phones.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF Mobile) plans to use its network to keep members informed about pending legislation and other news of interest to its 5 million members and supporters, says Greg Griffith, director of cause marketing.

In addition to offering a communications outlet for the group, NWF Mobile will provide income.

"We think this is going to be a great tool," Griffith says.

Juha Christensen, Sonopia's founder and CEO, says do-it-yourself wireless was inevitable.

Only a Matter of Time

With consumers increasingly demanding media customization, from ring tones to YouTube video, he says it was only a matter of time before "micro-segmentation" found its way to wireless.

"If you fast forward five years from now, we think it is unlikely that the cell phone market won't be as vibrant and micro-segmented as many other industries," he says. "We're just trying to step in early."

Sonopia, based in Menlo Park, Calif., owns no cell phone network or wireless spectrum. It buys wireless minutes in bulk from Verizon Wireless, then packages them into generic cell phone plans for its clients. Sonopia also has deals with device makers, including LG and Motorola (NYSE: MOT) , to provide handsets and other gear.

For all its differences from the big guys, one aspect of Sonopia's service is very familiar: contracts. Subscribers must sign up for one or two years, and early termination fees apply.

Right Now the Service is Limited to US customers but the revolution of this stature is worth taking note of. Its has the potential of changing the complete scene of the Telecom industry.