Jitterbug: the anti-MVNO

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Amp'd Mobile's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing has cast a gloomy net over the MVNO world. Yet another high-profile virtual operator has taken a very public fall making many (including me) even more skeptical about the validity of the MVNO business model.

Wireless is a complicated and expensive industry that thrives on low margins and high volume. Over the course of my career as a wireless reporter, I've listened to countless pitches from executives who made the mistake of oversimplifying this industry.

One executive who isn't making that mistake is Arlene Harris, CEO of Greatcall, makers of the Jitterbug wireless service. Many consider Harris the "first lady of wireless" for her vast wireless industry knowledge and experience. In the 1970s, she played a role in her family paging business, ICS Communications, which was later sold to Metromedia. She joined wireless pioneer Marty Cooper to found Cellular Business Systems, which became the largest independent billing company in the cellular industry. She also started Subscriber Computing, a California-based billing/customer service company. 

Today Harris, together with Cooper, is at the helm of Greatcall, a firm with a vision to connect people with family and friends with a simple phone. Although Harris says the phone is for anyone who wants simplicity, clearly the Jitterbug is targeted at the senior population. In stark contrast to the sleek and streamlined handsets with colorful icons that pack the shelves at operator store, the Jitterbug is plain and white with large buttons and a traditional keypad. "We are targeting older consumers with our advertising," Harris says. "They are the ones that have difficulty. There are no icons, no multipurpose buttons."

The Jitterbug is made by Samsung, and Harris is thankful that they would make a simplified phone for this market. "Many engineers, designers and marketers didn't want to do this because they were afraid their brand would be tarnished," Harris says. "But Samsung understood this market."

Although the pearl-colored Jitterbug isn't a stylish fête, Harris understands that style is important to the senior market.  I asked her if she was afraid of a backlash-in today's youth-oriented culture I can't see many people carrying something that looks like a "senior phone."

Harris says that Greatcall is focused on providing a phone that people can use and understand. "It's stressful to have a phone that you can't figure out how to use," Harris says. "Our first priority is to make sure they have a phone they like and will use."

The company won't reveal which operator network, or networks, it is using, Harris just says it's using CDMA and has deals with several operators. And unlike many of its MVNO counterparts, Greatcall is rolling out the Jitterbug service slowly and deliberately. Harris says that the service has only been in the market six months and the firm is going to take a slow approach for at least the first year. "We are focused on customer satisfaction. We want to take it slow and be careful," she says.

Slow and careful may be exactly what it necessary in today's high-stakes wireless game. Don't look for Greatcall's Jitterbug service to be sponsoring motocross races or rock concerts. Instead, I think you can count on this service to make headway with an underserved market that wants a simple solution-a phone for talking, not entertaining. - Sue

P.S. Just a final reminder that next week is our WiMAX Strategies conference in Chicago June 21. Co-located with NxtComm, the conference features keynotes from Barry West of Sprint Nextel and Scott Richardson of Clearwire. Here's the agenda.

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