Balancing Act (London)

Africa: Unbundling the Sacred SIM Identity - Movirtu Creates a Service Offering Soft Phone and Low Cost International Dialling With Your Mobile Number

London — When mobile carriers talk about owning the customer, it's their SIM card that contains the "ownership" they're thinking about. It contains both the customer's identity and his or her ability to get on to the network. Movirtu's new service unbundles this relationship a little and provides new possibilities. Russell Southwood spoke to its CEO Carsten Brinkshulte about what they have planned.

At the moment, voice and data are two largely separate charging streams for mobile operators. One day everything will be data so the logic is that everything would be charged as data. In between those two points is a blurry middle ground in which the mobile operators try to figure out how to retreat holding on to as much revenue as possible.

Movirtu started life as a SIM platform that was able to offer multiple identities on a single phone that was aimed at low-income users wanting to share a phone. Effectively, you had a login and got your own second number and SMS messaging rather like someone visiting a cyber-café to use Hotmail or Googlemail.

The service is still being marketed but took off rather slowly so the company has pivoted to use its technology to offer a range of different services, including being able to set up a second number on smartphones as a way for companies to get to grips with the current wave of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

Based on the WebRTC standard, CloudPhone uses Virtual SIMs to enable calls and messages over Wi-Fi networks from non-SIM devices - using a user's mobile number as their identity. The virtual SIM card manages identity and authentication and uses your existing mobile number for devices that don't have a SIM card. So instead of having to have a separate number (like a Skype bought number) for your calls via the Internet, you can use your own mobile number. As Brinkshulte told us:"You don't have to maintain two numbers and as a user you can decide where to pick up your incoming calls."

Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO at Movirtu, said: "Mobile coverage issues and challenges with smartphone battery life need no longer be a problem for users. With CloudPhone, they can use their mobile number from a tablet or laptop to make and receive calls over WiFi. CloudPhone makes it easy for operators to extend their reach, bringing mobile numbers to the internet and even offering virtual numbers to other operators' subscribers. This delivers a competitive advantage while also increasing revenues and reducing churn."

The service concept is not entirely new as O2 has a service called ToGo using Wi-Fi to allow its customers to make international calls using an app on a smartphone. The cute thing about the Movirtu service is that it unbundles the service from the phone on to any device.

So how does the charging work? With roaming there are two parties involved, the roaming carrier and the home carrier:"On the CloudPhone, the roaming carrier is not involved. Using Wi-Fi, you make the call as if you're in the (home) country". Since one rather two parties is involved, the home carrier can offer this international calling service cheaper than if both parties were involved.

Put slightly more brutally, it cuts the roaming carrier out of the picture. This business model will work well as most home carriers have little or no interest in helping the high price roaming carriers keep their prices high. But it's not clear how Vodafone UK would take a decision on this one in relation to its impact on say Vodafone Ghana or Safaricom.

However, despite the slow sales cycles of the mobile operators Movirtu will make an announcement soon about a deal with one of the major African mobile operators, so watch this space.

The transition happening here is that the industry will go from needing a physical SIM to protect its relationship with its customer to that same customer eventually being nothing more than a name and an IP address. Right now, we're all in that messy middle ground but anything that can bring international calling rates from Africa down has to be good news.

And there's another slightly bizarre piece of news this week that goes to demonstrate that smartphones really are computers. According to a report in Trusted Reviews, Huawei is developing a phone that will run two operating systems, Windows and Android, which will go into the US market in Q2 this year.

Shao Yang, Huawei's CMO, told Trusted Reviews that this will make it "easier for people to choose Windows Phone," with Android offering a comfortable fall-back position if Windows Phone doesn't work out for them.

For those of us who are Mac users, this will remind you of the dual operating system programmes like Parallels. This was designed to shoot down the often-raised objection that a particular piece of software only worked on Windows.

The days when a phone was just a SIM card, a voice and SMS service and maybe a torch may one day be over and it may not be that far away.

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