Cell phones get more personal

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2007

Cell phones get more personal

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Gimme a call on my cellphone and this is how it summons me:

[SOUND: Cell phone ring]

That’s the Pachelbel Canon.

We’ve all heard of personal ringtones, but what about a personal cell phone? The research firm iSuppli estimates by the end of the year, cell-phone subscribers will reach three billion.

Want a piece of that? Well, a new company lets you set up your own cell phone brand. Here’s Marketplace’s Jill Barshay.

JILL BARSHAY: Think you can design a better cell phone? Well, here’s your chance.

JUHA CHRISTENSEN: The smallest groups we cater to are one-person large.

That’s Juha Christensen. He started a new company called Sonopia. It allows anyone to become a cell phone operator with the click of a mouse.

CHRISTENSEN: You can sign up as yourself, start recruiting other members of your family, friends, and gradually build out your network.

Sonopia sends you and all your subscribers a phone labeled with your brand name.

CHRISTENSEN: Much like if you have a credit card with a sports team. And the bill, you know, displays the name of the sports team. When you get a Sonopia bill, it actually has the name of the affinity organization that you signed up with.

Subscribers may think they’re paying you, but they’re actually sending their checks to Sonopia. Sonopia also handles customer service. More than 1,000 groups have signed up.

CHRISTENSEN: Yoga phone. There’s mobile swami. You name it.

Johannes Fisslinger set up Yoga Phone through Sonopia. He thinks he’ll attract hordes of yogis with some extras you don’t get in an ordinary cell phone. Pictures of yoga postures, like downward dog.

JOHANNES FISSLINGER: It has features like, you know, have these motivational messages that come to you, you know. So when you’re under stress you read it, take a deep breath, you know. And you relax. It’s part of bringing something positive to you right where you are at this moment.

Fisslinger goes into verbal contortions to explain how noisy cell phones and yoga aren’t in contradiction.

BARSHAY: Is it OK if you have your yoga phone on during yoga class?

FISSLINGER: I don’t think so. I think you should not. Maybe on silent.

But the phone is not a laughing matter. It’s real business. For the customer, the monthly plans echo the ones you can get through Verizon Wireless, like 39.95 for 450 minutes. That’s because behind the scenes, it is Verizon Wireless. Sonopia pays to use Verizon’s cell phone network.

And it’s the latest example of a non-cell phone company that’s jumped into the mobile business. They’re all borrowing mobile networks from established telecom companies. Take Helio, Virgin, Disney Mobile. There are more than 100 of these brands.

The biggest risk for a consumer is that these non-cell phone companies will go out of business.

Weston Henderek studies the wireless industry for Current Analysis. That’s a market research firm.

WESTON HENDEREK: If you put $200 into a phone and then they stop operating three or four months down, you know, that cost is essentially sunk for you. So you can go to another carrier, but you know, 99 percent of the time you’re probably not going to be able to use the same device.

That’s what happened to Mobile ESPN customers when Disney pulled the plug on that service last year. Henderek expects lots of these companies to go out of business in the next year or so.

HENDEREK: You’re always taking a risk when you’re one of the first subscribers with some new company.

Like slow customer service or glitches in setting up the phone.

And what if Yoga Phone or one of these teeny, tiny cell phone companies shuts down? If you find another minigroup you like under the Sonopia umbrella, you can switch free of charge.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jill Barshay for Marketplace Money.

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