Startup aims to get the poor online with phone numbers

Movirtu helps carriers in poor countries offer personal numbers for users of shared phones

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.

"In many cases, there are great NGO programs that can't reach 80 percent of their base," because those people don't have their own phones, Liberoff said.

Movirtu has committed to finding and keeping at least 3 million users of its service in Africa and South Asia as part of BCtA, an initiative by two U.N. agencies and a group of non-governmental organizations that is designed to leverage private enterprise to solve major global problems. BCtA provides leadership, information-sharing and advice to companies that participate in its program.

Movirtu expects about 75 percent of its users to be women, because women in Africa and South Asia are statistically far less likely than men to have their own phones, Liberoff said. In some cases, this is by choice, because having a phone can make women targets by revealing their wealth, she said.

Users can get a mobile identity by going to one of the mobile carrier's shops. When they borrow a phone, they enter a shortcode for the Movirtu service and then punch in their individual phone number and a personal identification number. After that, the temporary user can access all the services available through the phone, as well as a personal carrier home page where they can manage and top up their prepaid account, Liberoff said. The system works on any GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone, using USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), a GSM protocol for communicating with a service provider's computers.

The company is piloting the service in the island nation of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. Through local carrier Airtel, the service was made available throughout the island starting on Monday. Madagascar is a perfect market for Movirtu, because Airtel has built an extensive network but many people in the country can't afford to buy a phone, Liberoff said.

"It's got lots of great network and very few users," she said.

Movirtu plans launches in at least 12 markets in Africa and South Asia by early 2013, reaching at least 50 million potential users. The two regions were chosen because they are home to about 1 billion of the 1.3 billion people in the world who rely on borrowed phones, Liberoff said.

Movirtu's customers are the carriers, which can use the personal mobile identities as an avenue to sell prepaid service, Liberoff said. The company isn't donating anything for the BCtA initiative, only making the commitment to bring its service to a certain number of people in the two regions, she said. Providing mobile identities in the developing world is Movirtu's primary business model. There are also some potential uses for the technology in the developed world, such as an alternative to traditional international roaming mechanisms, Liberoff said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

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