FaithFone Wireless: It had to happen eventually

October 23, 2006, 12:42 PM UTC
Fortune


Faithfone_1

It’s with a mixture of awe and apprehension that I report that a company has at last found a way to use Jesus to sell phone service.

FaithFone Wireless is an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. That means it basically leases the network of an established carrier – in this case, Liberty Wireless (Sprint) – and sells its own FaithFone package of services on top of it. The arrangement is similar to what Virgin Mobile does with Sprint, only with a few Christian-specific twists.

For example: Phoenix-based FaithFone ties in with a Visa debit card, and you can get a text message every time a purchase is made with your card (a clever fraud alert feature that could quickly get annoying for frequent shoppers). Some other Christian-specific features include:

  • Option to subscribe to daily devotionals, inspirational messages or Bible passages sent directly to your phone (via text, audio or video).
  • Mobile Banking with a FaithFone prepaid debit-card, and card-less subordinate bank account that is accessed using your cell phone and secure internet web-site. Transfer money to accounts, pay tithes, offering, pay bills, pay a friend, and reload cell phone minutes using your cell phone.
  • A donation of 1% of your monthly bill to your local church, ministry or other non-profit organizations.
  • A donation of 1% of your monthly debit-card purchase to your local church, ministry or favorite non-profit organizations when you use the card to purchase air-time minutes.
  • Option to subscribe to news clips, ringtones, faithtones, and entertainment content from Christian authors/musicians and TV broadcasters sent directly to your phone (via text, audio or video).

So why the mixture of awe and apprehension? The awe comes from the attention to detail. Assuming FaithFone service works as advertised, the company has provided a package of services that the targeted audience would appreciate. (As a Christian myself, I feel qualified to make that assessment.)

The apprehension? I know a bit about how the mobile business works, and I realize what FaithFone is doing with its business model. Two of the most expensive things for wireless service providers are customer acquisition (getting you to sign up) and customer retention (keeping you from leaving). Carriers spend billions of dollars on programs to improve those metrics.

What FaithFone is doing, largely, is leveraging people’s commitment to their church and religious life to acquire and keep them as customers. The one percent phone bill donation to the church is an incentive to get churches to sign their members up en masse. It’s also an incentive to keep them from switching to another carrier, even if the service is better elsewhere. (There’s even a service that can text-message your church if you try to leave the phone plan. Yep. Seriously.)

In the best of all worlds, if FaithFone and the churches it partners with do everything right, this stuff won’t be an issue. People will sign up if they want to, donate some money, and leave FaithFone guilt-free if they get a better deal elsewhere.

Of course, Christianity is based on the idea that this is not the best of all worlds.