Company Aims to Bring a Smile to Poor With Free Cellphone Numbers in South Africa
Telecom’s veteran Irene Charnley is back in business with a new venture to make communications more affordable for the masses.
Charnley -- a billionaire thanks to her years as a vice-president at MTN -- is now CEO of Smile Communications, which is testing a tactic of giving customers their own telephone number even if they do not own a handset.
"For the first time individuals are offered free telephone numbers and voice message boxes whether they own a handset or not," Charnley said.
The trial run is being held in the Gamalakhe community, near Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal. Smile will appoint agents to sign up customers in their communities. The agents will operate Smile pay phones in shops or kiosks, and will give the customers a free phone number and then sell them airtime.
Customers will be given a secure PIN code so they can use any Smile phone. Once they log in, they can make low-cost calls and operate a voice mailbox with free message retrieval.
Having a personal number means the customer can be contacted directly, though the incoming caller will need to leave a voice message, unless the user logs on to a Smile phone at a pre-arranged time to answer the call.
Their airtime balance is always visible and calls are charged per second with the fee deducted from their prepaid airtime balance. The customer can also set up a contact list of numbers, with recent calls shown first for fast dialling.
The agents will also sell handsets to customers who can afford one. Those phones can be shared by several people, with each user entering their PIN number to access their airtime.
The system would also benefit entrepreneurs in the communities by letting them start a new business using Smile's tools and training, Charnley said.
Technologies such as broadband wireless and the ability to carry voice calls over data lines had dramatically reduced the cost of communicating and challenged the dominance of traditional operators. However, the cost of owning and using a cellphone was still prohibitive for more than 500-million people in Africa and the Middle East, she said.
If they wanted to communicate they had to use a public phone with limited features, or had to borrow a friend's phone. Smile would use new technologies and a new business model to take affordable communications to communities that needed it most, she said.
The company plans to operate in various countries in Africa and the Middle East. Charnley, along with fellow South Africans Paul Savage and Sharron Naidoo, own 21%, with 79% held by Al-Nahla Technology, a Saudi Arabian consortium owned by Al-Nahla Group and the Atheeb Group. Savage is a former MTN technician who led its research and development and broadband wireless strategies, and Naidoo is a former chief financial director of Johnnic Entertainment.
The service is a variation on another initiative to make telecoms affordable for the masses, which was started by the government several years ago but has failed to fly. That required the cellular operators to hand out 4-million free SIM cards to SA's poorest people.
Vodacom, MTN and Cell C agreed to give away the cards in exchange for spectrum access, but got bogged down by administrative and technical hitches. The cards were useless without a handset, so the owner had to borrow a phone. Though the cards gave the recipient a cellular number, they were not loaded with airtime so users still had to pay the high retail rates for prepaid airtime.