New cell service lets you be the boss

Published May 23, 2007

NEW YORK - Maybe it's time to stop grumbling about your cell phone company and just start your own.

That's what Rod Farthing did, at 2:30 a.m. no less. Oh yeah, it took him just a few minutes to get Farthing Mobile up and running, replete with a selection of national calling plans and cell phone models.

Business is slow so far: Since the April launch, Farthing has signed up two subscribers, himself and his son. But he has two prospects in his wife and another son.

Well no, Farthing didn't actually build a cellular network or develop a billing system and everything else that one needs to run a mobile phone business.

Instead, he created Farthing Mobile through Sonopia, a new "do-it-yourself" service that enables groups and individuals to design their own cell brands with a healthy dose of social networking gone mobile. Sonopia buys air time from Verizon Wireless to provide service, a fact hidden by each group's brand on the phone's screen.

"I don't expect to get rich off of it, " said Farthing, 50, a self-described "cell phone junkie" in Toledo, Ohio, who is tailoring his cell service to people interested in technology. He's also using it for a class project in an e-business course he teaches at a local college. "If I get up to 100 members I'll be happy. If I get up to 50 I'll be happy."

Since Sonopia's public launch in early April, about 1, 000 of these customized cell companies have been created, including about 100 by the startup's employees.

A handful have been launched by sizable nonprofit groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the American Medical Student Association.

But the vast majority of Sonopia's growing roster of wireless communities were started by individuals, families and tiny groups with very specialized interests.

There's Aviation History Mobile with 13 members, the 10-member Mums in Business, the six-member Bitta Irish Phone Club, the 13-member Peninsula Skate Crew Mobile, and the five-member Scrabble Mobile featuring weekly contests to devise the highest-word score with a set of letter tiles.

While every tiny cell company adds to the bottom line, nonprofit organizations are a major focus. Sonopia points to the devotion people show for favorite charities, community groups and sports teams as a natural selling point. A small percentage of the monthly bill kicks back to the organization, providing a way for members to pad their financial support for a cause.

Sonopia provides tools for each community to share information, photos and other multimedia content on the phone, as well as a dedicated Web site that can be accessed by non-subscribers who just want to be part of that community. So far, about two of every three members are phone subscribers, while the rest are Web-only participants.

Sonopia gives each virtual cell company from 3 percent to 8 percent of the monthly proceeds, depending on how many paying customers they have.

Users can choose from an array of individual and family calling plans similar to those offered by the major cell phone companies.