Earlier this year Movirtu, a UK-based company specializing in Mobile Identity Management, reached an agreement with Airtel Madagascar to offer a cloud phone service.

  • Movirtu’s Cloud Phone gives a user a phone number that can be used for voice and text messaging, but which is not associated with a physical phone or SIM card. The user, who prepays for service, borrows or rents a mobile phone, enters a unique ID number and makes and receives calls, sends and receives texts or makes and receives mobile payments. The owner of the device is credited with a small amount of airtime to encourage lending.

An island country with a population of 21 million that is largely rural (70%) and extremely poor (per capita GDP = PPP$ 900), Madagascar is in many ways an idea environment for Movirtu’s virtual phone service. There are many people who are simply too poor to own even a second hand phone, and the island’s rudimentary roads and diffuse population make it challenging to profitably distribute even something as modest in size as a SIM card.

The Movirtu experiment in Madagascar may succeed or fail, but either way it raises an interesting question about the nature of the mobile phone in developing countries. If the phone is a simply a device to communicate, then accessing phone service as an ID-based cloud service makes as much sense as accessing email through Internet cafes, rather than owning a laptop and paying for connectivity.

  • On the other hand, if the mobile device becomes a primary platform for entertainment and information, as well as communication– as many in the industry devoutly hope – the cloud model may not work quite as well. Moreover, owning a mobile phone can represent an achievement of no small personal significance - owning a phone number may not have the same impact. (See "Voices of the Next Billion: Mobile Adoption at the 'Bottom of the Pyramid ")