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The People’s Operator
Remember the ? Last summer, it seemed everybody was getting a soaking for charity. If you want to continue raising money and awareness for good causes, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales this week spearheaded the launch in the US of , a mobile carrier and social network that donates 10 percent of your bill to the cause of your choice — and you don’t even have to get your hair wet.
Wales, 48, co-founded open-source, user-edited encyclopaedia Wikipedia in 2001. As Wikipedia grew to become one of the most used resources on the Web, Wales has been an important voice in the growth and culture of the Internet. In 2014 he became chairman of TPO, which launched in the UK two years earlier, and has helped guide the company in expanding across the world.
This week, TPO launched as a carrier in the US, and at the same time launched a social network for people around the world to help their favourite causes too. To find out more, CNET got on the phone to the company’s New York office to chat with Wales and CEO Mark Epstein.
The premise of the service is that 10 per cent of the money you spend on your phone bill goes to the cause of your choice, and 25 per cent of the company’s profits go to charity. Wales explains that TPO donates the money other carriers or networks spend on marketing. «You can stay with your current provider and they’ll spend more than 10 percent of your money on TV commercials or magazine ads and flyers in the mail,» he said, «or you can switch to us and we’ll spend 10 percent on something that you care about [and in return] we want you to tell your family, tell your friends and get other people signed up.»
Conceived a year and a half and built over the last six or seven months, the ad-free social network extends the message and the principles of the phone network. «We don’t spend our money on huge billboards or Super Bowl ads,» said Epstein. «We just ask you to tell people who care about it, and the social network is a digital space to amplify that.»
«Word of mouth is stronger than ever before,» said Wales. «Forty years ago if you really loved something you might tell five people — now you might tell 500 people. Word of mouth works if there’s a great story that resonates with people and their values, so I do think there’s a lot of opportunity for causes to be a part of that, raising money and so forth. We saw the ice bucket challenge go viral last year, I think we’ll see a lot more stuff like that. People want their online presence and their online life to be meaningful and that’s what TPO is trying to do, to give them the tools.
«My career has always been about trying to figure out what people want to accomplish and giving them the tools to do it,» said Wales. «That idea of people coming together in a group to do something they couldn’t do by themselves is really core to my thinking because I’ve seen how well it works at Wikipedia.
«One of the biggest lessons [I’ve learned] is that there are huge numbers of people out there who want to do good things.»
While awareness and word of mouth is important, it’s also crucial that charities and worthy causes are able to convert that attention into real money. Epstein explained that, «We get a lot of feedback from causes that they have a lot of followers on other platforms but they don’t really generate much out of it…What we’ve found from our cause-based partners, like Save the Children, WWF and Wounded Warrior is that they want somewhere thy can not only talk with people that support them, but also have a really efficient way of taking donations. What we’ve merged together is a great social network with the ability for causes to drive donations in a really cost-effective way. While other platforms charge as much as 8 percent, we just pass on the bank fees and don’t take any commission.»
The social network not only helps spreads the word in the US and UK where TPO is already in business, but around the world too. «I just saw a post this morning asking can we get Latvian and Russian language [support],» said Wales, «so one of the first questions people are asking is when are the translations coming? And the answer is as soon as we can get them done.»
Meeting international folks on the social network is a first step towards bringing the carrier to other countries as well as the US and UK. TPO is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which means it provides the branding and the front end that customers deal with, while the masts and other technical infrastructure are leased from a local carrier — currently Sprint in the US and EE in the UK.
That means launching in new countries necessitates doing a deal with a local carrier. The social network shows potential partner carriers around the world that customers are interested in getting involved. «As we get loads and loads of people signed up and using the social networking platform,» said Wales, «we’ll be able to go to new countries and negotiate with carriers on behalf of those consumers to get a really good deal in each market.
«Our intention is to be as global as possible as quickly as possible,» said Wales.
There aren’t many networks that operate in both the US and UK, two very mature and very different mobile markets. In the US, Epstein noted, «people send less texts than they do in the UK…By and large the handsets are very similar, but the biggest difference is still the technology. In the UK we use SIM cards, and in the US half the market is CDMA and have no SIM cards, [which] allows people to switch to us without having to send out a SIM card. That opens up a lot of exciting possibilities.»
The People’s Operator is available now, offering phone deals from and . The social network is open to all at .