One customer walked into Community Phone’s Harvard Square store on a recent afternoon to get help reinstalling a deleted smartphone application. Another had a question about her wireless service. A third pulled out his laptop to use the free Wi-Fi.
To James Graham, chief executive of the upstart cellphone carrier, each person who drops by the pop-up store represents a precious opportunity — so valuable, in fact, that he’s often the one answering customers’ queries. Community Phone, with its tiny roster of 300 subscribers, is trying to humanize the telecommunications business, and Graham believes happy customers will lead the way.
“People have to feel this is fully for them,” Graham said. “I don’t know a way to do that, other than [ensuring] it actually is.”
Community Phone, one of the country’s smallest low-budget cell service providers, is bringing the ethos of a lemonade stand to a sector dominated by global telecommunications giants.
Graham, a 22-year-old who skipped college and moved to the Boston area after high school to try his luck in tech, signed up some of his first customers from a table set up in Harvard Square, trading on what he believes is a pent-up frustration with the opacity of the wireless industry. His business proposition is to offer simple, cheap, friendly service — exactly what critics say the big telecoms lack.
So far, the company has attracted a handful of millennials looking to simplify their digital lives, as well as dozens of older residents who see Graham and his fresh-faced colleagues as a helpful resource for navigating unfamiliar technologies.
“They really do care about their customers,” said Anne Bernays, the Cambridge author and Harvard writing instructor, who was among the first customers at Community Phone.
Bernays, 88, said many people of her generation regard visiting a traditional cellphone store as “like going into a torture chamber and being brainwashed.”
The simplest of the company’s stripped-down plans includes unlimited voice calls and texts, along with a gigabyte of data, for $25 per month. Community Phone encourages customers to use the phones they already have, but it sells older-model devices — some new, some used — that start at $20 for a flip phone and go as high as $600 for an iPhone 8.
The micro-carrier doesn’t own cell towers. It buys access wholesale from telecommunications giants, including Sprint and AT&T, then lets its customers in on a piece of the savings. That model has worked for other “mobile virtual network operator” services such as Google Fi, Consumer Cellular, and Ting.
The largest MVNO in the United States, by far, is TracFone, which will have an estimated 21.7 million retail subscribers this year, according to Strategy Analytics. Other service resellers will have a combined 8.5 million subscriptions, the research firm said, and it expects healthy growth in coming years. Verizon has about 119 million retail subscriptions.
Some of the micro-carriers and their customers love to hate the Verizons of the world, but wireless giants see these upstarts as retail specialists for high-maintenance customers — or magnets for new subscribers. If a wholesale customer gets big enough to threaten a major company’s retail operation, the bigger firm can always offer to buy the scrappy startup and its accounts.
Industry observers say they expect to see more companies like Community Phone experimenting in the wireless space in coming years.
“Consumers are starting to look at the good-guy companies and maybe take a chance on them,” said Kelsey Sheehy, a personal finance writer who covers the wireless industry for the consumer advice website NerdWallet. “There certainly is a market for this.”
Graham recognized that potential a few years ago. As he was working to develop a mobile security technology, his conversations with friends and family led him to believe there was a need for a different kind of cell service.
The first hurdle was getting access to cellular networks.
After some furious Googling and countless cold calls, he found an opening with zoomMediaPlus, a San Diego company that operates on the networks of Sprint and AT&T and largely caters to customers using connected devices or mobile services in the cloud.
Graham explained his business model to Richard Sfeir, chief executive of zoomMediaPlus, and Sfeir was into it.
“He’s not trying to sell a phone, sell a plan, and make a buck; he’s trying to provide a service for the older folks and the community in general,” Sfeir said. “They were trying first to understand the consumer’s need, what they want, and then solve it for them.”
Sfeir let Community Phone hook up for an upfront cost of about $5,000, in hopes that the company would grow and send him more business. By early last year the fledgling carrier was up and running.
It started selling plans from a stand in Harvard Square and at senior centers. Cofounder John LaGue started selling them around Milwaukee, where he and Graham grew up together. To date, most of Community Phone’s accounts are in the Cambridge area and in Wisconsin.
They opened their store last week on Church Street, and spent a few thousand dollars setting up wood-pallet paneling and a display of Cambridge’s role in the history of telecommunications.
Community Phone’s client base is microscopic, compared with what other alternative carriers have, let alone the major providers. Its size, for now, is a virtue. Anyone who walks in is likely to meet Graham or LaGue, and they generally have the time to help customers with pretty much anything.
They’ll get on the phone with your current provider to help you switch your service, and Graham says he has even filled out complaints to the Federal Communications Commission for customers who feel their contracts are unfair.
It’s a good sales strategy: practically unlimited attention from the bright, accountable twentysomethings who run the company. The hand holding might be enough to convince customers they can trust an untested company. (Community Phone also has a contingency plan, in the event of its failure, to shift customers to Sprint’s network.)
But Graham wants his company to grow — and it will have to, if he expects to attract the venture capital he’s hoping for. He said the company may move into other products, such as broadband Internet access, or open retail stores around the country, paying retail workers at least $20 an hour to deliver the kind of hands-on service with a smile that his first customers have come to expect.
The company has also developed a phone ordering and support system that uses only human operators — no robots.
“We think that we can signal trust more efficiently in a one-on-one interaction than with Super Bowl ads,” he said.
But even some of his biggest fans worry about how the company will live up to its name as its roster of customers expands.
Bernays — who suggested the company’s slogan, “A different phone company” — even had Graham at her Passover Seder last year. She struggles to imagine how Community Phone could hold onto its grass-roots, friendly feel with 100,000 customers.
“At this point it’s practical for them,” she said. “But if they grow too fast too quickly, it won’t be.”