Community Phone, an MVNO based in the U.S., just opened its first retail store, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston. The MVNO launched its service, which runs on Sprint’s network, last year, signing up its first customers from an outdoor table in Harvard Square, a prominent public space in Cambridge, and from centers for senior citizens.
The operator is tiny, with a subscriber base of only around 300, and it presents itself as a community-based, grass-roots alternative to traditional mobile services. The CEO and co-founder, James Graham, is 22 years old and is often present in the store, available to speak with and assist anyone who comes in. The other co-founder, John LaGue, is also frequently on-site. Community Phone’s phone-based ordering and support system is staffed so that anyone who calls will speak to a human. Currently, the subscribers are located mainly in the Cambridge area and in Wisconsin, where Graham and LaGue grew up, and are mainly from the youth or elderly demographics.
Community Phone offers several plans, with no contracts and no initial fee. The Simple plan costs US $25.00 a month and offers unlimited calls and texts with 1 GB of data. For US $35.00 a month (the Standard plan), users get the same service but with 2 GB and the opportunity to get additional data at US $3.00 per 250 MB. Finally, the Couple plan offers two lines for US $65.00 a month, with 4 GB of shared data and each additional 500 GB for US $5.00. The company promises that if it should fail, all customers will automatically be switched over to Sprint so they will not lose service.
This grass-roots, bootstrap, small-scale approach to providing mobile service is an interesting elaboration of the MVNO concept. Community Phone’s founders are responding to a situation in the market where at least some users are frustrated by the impersonal nature of the large operators, and hopes to carve out a niche for itself by providing extremely hands-on customer care.
The “small is beautiful” attitude of Community Phone and its emphasis on simplicity should appeal to some users because they are trying to simplify their mobile lives, or else because they are relatively unfamiliar with the technology and may be intimidated by the major players in the mobile market. It is interesting to note that while the youth and senior demographics are often spoken of as having very different needs and tastes, Community Phone seems to be finding some commonalities between them, such as a desire for simplicity and low cost, and each age group may well value the in-person availability of customer service, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons.
The idea of micro-MVNOs that respond closely to community needs is promising, but growth is inevitable if a company is to survive and prosper. The question here is, will Community Phone be able to retain the characteristics that have enabled it to get this far, if it gets bigger? For now, though, one could say that although T-Mobile US touts unconventionality as its selling point, the Cambridge newcomer is truly an “un-carrier”!