By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007
Daniel Neal scoffs at the notion that children are too young for cellphones.
"Kids are using more advanced mobile devices than even their parents," said Neal, co-founder of a new cellphone service geared specifically toward 8- to 16-year-olds. "They're adept. They're swimming in technology, and they're comfortable using it."
He and his two partners -- all fathers with young children -- say they firmly believe that youngsters are perfectly capable of handling the responsibility of a cellphone. The real trick, they say, is selling that idea to their elders, who are typically wary of putting too much mobile power into such small hands.
Last month, the three dads launched Kajeet, a Bethesda start-up named after the initials of their children. After receiving $27 million from investors and spending three years researching what children and parents want from cellphones, the Kajeet founders say they have a plan that will appeal to both.
The company offers pay-as-you-go cellphone service with no contracts or cancellation fees. Parents can deposit money into an account that also allows their children to purchase features such as ring tones, games and text messages.
Parents can set monthly allowances, which Kajeet says will help them teach kids about budgeting. They can set up "wallets" so, for example, money for calls to family members comes out of the parents' pocket, but the child pays for calls and text messages to friends.
And if a child loses cellphone privileges for, say, buying too many Jesse McCartney wallpapers, parents do not have to pay for the unused minutes because they are not locked into a plan. Parents can also block calls during certain times of the day -- math class, for instance. But calls to parents and 911 are never blocked.
The service costs 35 cents a day, plus an additional 5 cents for each text message and 10 cents a minute for calls. Other features, such as $5 games and $2 ring tones, are bought on an a la carte basis. Kajeet has teamed up with companies that offer content targeted to young consumers. Nickelodeon will provide wallpapers and games. A wide range of ring tones will be available but will be carefully screened for inappropriate lyrics, Neal said.
"We want to have the right kind of edge without ever going over the edge," he said.
While Kajeet says it will aim at youngsters as old as 16, it is the "tween" market of 8- to 12-year-olds that is considered to the be one of the last frontiers for wireless companies, according to a 2006 study by the Yankee Group, a market research firm. More than half of the "tween" population will be wireless users by 2010, the study predicted.
Most of the "tweens" already using cellphones are on family plans -- the earliest attempts by wireless companies to capture business. In the past two years, a handful of companies entered the "tween" market. Disney, LeapFrog, Verizon and LG rolled out kid-friendly phones with parental controls. Firefly Mobile designed a phone with five large buttons in place of a numeric keypad, with buttons labeled "mommy" and "daddy." But Neal said such "kiddie" phones are not appealing to "tweens," with their constant desire to look and act a few years older. Kajeet offers three adult-looking cellphones, each around $99, that are now being sold at Best Buy stores, Limited Too clothing stores and the West Coast chain Longs Drug Stores. The phones use Sprint Nextel's network.
Disney Mobile also updated the look of its kid-oriented phones last week, offering sleeker handsets and adding more interactive controls for parents.
Kajeet's mature look and simple pricing resonated with a wider audience than its founders had anticipated during the company's beta release last fall, he said.
"I've even heard some rumors that adults are using it," he said. "But that's okay with us."