(Lewis Whyld/Associated Press)
Cutting the cord means freedom
For Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, the cellphone is all about meeting your future wife or getting your medical information
Last Updated November 22, 2007
By Peter Nowak, CBCNews.ca
Whether he's flying around in hot air balloons or rappelling down skyscrapers, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson likes to stay mobile. Not surprisingly, the billionaire adventurer is also a big proponent of cellphones, which explains why he added a mobile business to his conglomerate — a sprawling group of companies that includes record stores, a railway and a fledging commercial space flight operation.
Branson, who is dedicating much of his time these days to humanitarian efforts in developing countries, launched Virgin Mobile in the United Kingdom in 1999 and in Canada in 2005, and now has more than 10 million customers across six countries. He discussed the importance of mobile devices, particularly in Third World countries, with CBCNews.ca.
What's your mobile device of choice and what's your favourite thing about it?
The most important thing is the freedom it gives me to not be stuck in an office, to get out and about, to meet people, have fun. With the fixed-line telephones of the past you were fixed to a room.
Is it a Virgin phone you're using?
What is it lacking that you wish it could do?
Well, if I was single I could think of lots of things but since I'm married — remember that Richard — let me see … I'd like to be able to see the person I was talking to down on the other end of the phone.
Richard Branson gives the thumbs-up signal after arriving for the announcement of Virgin Mobile, Canada's newest mobile phone service in Toronto, March 1, 2005. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
What was your impetus for starting Virgin Mobile?
At the time we started it, all you had were expensive contracts and there wasn't such a thing as prepaid and there were masses of hidden charges. Virgin goes where we feel people are being ripped off, so that's why we started it in the first place. The success of Virgin Mobile around the world has proven that other people agree with us.
Why then are you now getting into postpaid, where customers pay a monthly bill and are tied into a contract?
Virgin Mobile has now been well-established in Canada. It's the fastest growing company in the history of Canada in its first two years reaching $100 million turnover [revenue]. The team at Virgin Mobile have done a great job in getting the Virgin brand well established in Canada and it has shaken up the industry as we planned, with half a million customers.
The problem is the proposition that we have is very good for 20 or 30 per cent of the population but we can't do the gadgets that people want with prepaid. In postpaid we can reach 100 per cent of the population and adapt the propositions based on people's needs, as well as avoid the pitfalls that other people have done with postpaid — nasty contracts, hidden charges — so we can keep the sort of friendly flexibility that we've had in the past.
The last time you were here was in March for the introduction of number portability. How would you characterize the Canadian wireless scene and has it changed much since then?
You are never going to see an earthquake as the result of something like that, but it is a very important part of giving people freedom of choice. If Canadians see a better deal, then they can swap whereas they couldn't have done it in the past or wouldn't have wanted to do it. I suspect we wouldn't have been thinking about launching postpaid if we hadn't won the number portability battle. Previously, having to give up your telephone number would have made it really tough [to switch provider].
Why is it important for people around the world to have a cellphone?
If you ask people what's the one thing they cannot do without, it's their mobile phone. I fell into the sea about two days ago and my mobile phone went down with me, and I was watching the SIM card dry out with great concern. I don't think there was anything else on my body … that was as important as my mobile phone.
If you don't have your mobile phone, that beautiful woman you gave your number to the other day, who may be your future wife and the mother of your children, may never get a hold of you. It's pretty critical. That business person who shows some interest in your business who said he'd give you a call back, you've blown it if you don't have your mobile phone. It is everything in people's lives.
For some people like myself, it's that freedom of movement. If you're running a company you should not be behind a desk, you should be out travelling the world, meeting people, finding out what's going on and getting feedback. Without a mobile phone you couldn't do that.
Why is it important to people in the developing world?
It's important for a whole mass of reasons. In Africa, there are villages that use the top-up [payment] mechanism on the phones as the bank for the village. They're basically using the prepaid phone [as currency]. Most people's trade is done on mobile phones in Africa.
People are getting their CD4 counts done on mobile phones if they're HIV positive. There are even phones now where if you're diabetic you just put a bit of blood on it and that checks your diabetic levels in a central place in America. You can take a photograph of your food if you're diabetic and send that along and the doctor can tell you what to eat. I'm not sure whether you can do that with AIDS yet, but the people I was talking to on the diabetic program said they thought they could move on to AIDS.
There are few things you can't do with a mobile phone now.
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