A new mobile phone network is launching in the UK today, one that’s promising to shake up the status quo and offer an ethical alternative for those looking to steer clear of the big-name incumbents.
The People’s Operator (TPO) will be flicking its switch to ‘on’ later this morning, offering a quarter of its profits to good causes. And The Next Web caught up with the folk behind this new venture to get the lowdown on what the British public can expect on launch.
But first, it may help to have a quick glance at the current mobile landscape in the UK…it’s a far more crowded market than you probably thought.
The UK already has more than fifty mobile networks, the vast majority of which you likely haven’t even heard of – for example, Lyca Mobile, Go Mobile and Vectone Mobile. Indeed, a personal favorite of mine is actually GiffGaff, a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) network largely staffed by its community of users, with no call centres.
The majority of these are what are known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), meaning they don’t own their own network infrastructure…they piggyback off the four big guys’ mobile phone masts. These are EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) which comprises of the T-Mobile and Orange brands, O2, Vodafone and 3.
The People’s Operator is another MVNO, and while the founders wouldn’t confirm which big gun would be powering its new network for contractual reasons, we do happen to know this will be EE.
Meet the founders
TPO is founded by Andrew Rosenfeld (Chair), Mark Epstein (Vice-Chair) and Tom Gutteridge (Vice-Chair).
You may have encountered Rosenfeld before, a British businessman who co-founded Minerva, a FTSE 250 property investment and development firm. He was also recently given a role with the Labour party to increase its donor base and reel in more supporters.
Epstein and Gutteridge previously co-founded a communications company called Mass1, and the three TPO founders met through their work in the so-called ‘Third Sector’.
Rosenfeld has been involved in a number of initiatives around not-for-profits, having been chairman of the NSPCC Full Stop campaign, which raised £250m for children in the UK.
“The challenge for me has always been to combine commerce and giving in communities,” says Rosenfeld. “So we hatched together the idea of creating a mobile phone network, that would run as a commercial enterprise but which would also help communities.”
“It’s called The People’s Operator because that’s what it’s built to do – it’s built to help people”, adds Gutteridge. “It’s built to support causes and to generate support direct to local communities. It matters because we can offer a great deal to our users – a great mobile deal – and it matters to the causes because we’re going to share a percentage of our profits with them.”
The three co-founders are the sole shareholders in the company.
How it works
TPO will launch initially as a PAYG network only, which will likely curtail sign-ups a little to begin with, but early next year it will start offering SIM-only contracts as you’d expect from any network, covering data, texts and calls bundles.
In terms of pricing, it’s completely free TPO-to-TPO for texts and calls, which will obviously help with the network (pardon the pun) effect, and is a similar deal as you already get with the likes of GiffGaff.
The founders weren’t revealing too much about the roadmap for pricing when bundles and contracts come into play in the new year, but for now it will cost 7.5p per text message on PAYG, and voice calls will cost 12.5p.
But the real kicker comes in the business model TPO is operating. They’ve set up a Foundation which will receive 25% of TPO’s profits, and they’ll allocate the funds accordingly to good causes – so, for example, you could be a charity that puts in an application to receive funding for a specific project. Sir Christopher Kelly, who is currently the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Chair of the King’s Fund, is heading up the Foundation.
In addition to this, a user can also allocate a further 10% to go to a cause of their choosing, a sum that comes directly from their calls, texts and data spend. Alternatively, organisations can receive 10% of call, text and data spend in respect of any customers that they help sign up to TPO
In terms of the company’s physical set-up, details around the number of employees weren’t forthcoming, but the founders did say they would have an in-house call center based at their office in London’s Shoreditch area…yup, Tech City.
Work started on The People’s Operator in November last year, and prior to launch the company’s founders say that they’re aiming to one of the largest telecom operators in the UK. “We don’t see ourselves as a niche player – we see ourselves as a commercial operator first,” says Rosenfeld. “The more money we make, the more money can be given to good causes.”
And given that they’re piggybacking off EE’s network, 4G will be arriving at some point, though timescales for this aren’t yet clear. A key selling point, however, could be the ability to manage multiple SIM cards from a single account – so let’s say you need one for you iPad, iPhone and WiFi dongle, they can each be topped up from one online profile, rather than having to set up three separate accounts for each SIM. This is something that’s sorely missing from GiffGaff’s offering.
As with any competitive market, TPO will have its work cut out for it in terms of gaining traction. They tell us that they’ve partnered with some big UK organizations “to help get scale”, including Childline and NSPCC. The exact nature of these partnerships remains to be seen…but suffice to say, they’ll be pushing and promoting TPO as an ethical mobile phone network.
However, businesses will be a key market for TPO, and they have more than one eye on the corporate pie. “CSR is a bit of a minefield in corporations,” says Gutteridge. “It’s a drag. What we want to do is talk to corporate businesses, and say ‘we can really help you here’ if you sign up with us. This would be good for CSR, great branding and it would be great for us too.”
So, an interesting alternative for sure. With so many existing MVNOs already plying their trade across the country, we’ll be keen to see whether its ethical credentials will win the hearts, minds and wallets of the UK’s mobile masses.
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