A man uses a large mobile handset as he sits on a bench in Chieti, Italy. (Photographer: Marc Hill/Bloomberg)  

An IPad for 80-Year-Olds: Senior-Citizen Carrier Bets on Tablets

(Bloomberg) -- Consumer Cellular Inc. has spent years carving out a lucrative niche in the wireless industry: selling mobile phones to senior citizens.

Now the closely held carrier looks to apply that formula to tablets and smart-home equipment. The idea is to offer technology that’s simpler to use, both for non-savvy consumers and those who are physically challenged.

The company’s expansion begins this month with the addition of the GrandPad to its lineup. The touch-screen tablet was designed for older customers -- people who may be intimidated by an iPad. The interface lets users hold video chats with family members, view photos or check up on news.

Later this year, the Oregon-based company aims to follow up with a network of motion sensors and a wireless hub for the home. That will let caregivers monitor their loved ones remotely, Consumer Cellular co-founder John Marick said in an interview. And more products could eventually connect to the hub -- perhaps something that reminds seniors to take their pills on time, for example.

Future Options

“Once you have a wireless hub in the home, you can connect all kinds of things to it,” Marick said.

Caregiving products are a new direction for the 23-year-old company, and one that it hopes will help it evade a slowdown in the wireless industry. Consumer Cellular has been been posting sales growth of 20 percent to 30 percent, and it looks to reach $1 billion in revenue this year, Marick said.

But the market for senior-citizen technology could soon become more crowded, especially as baby boomers hit their golden years. Best Buy Co. is selling Assured Living -- a network of sensors to track seniors in their homes and related apps for caregivers -- in select markets. Several companies also have showcased home-assisting robots.

As it tries to compete, Consumer Cellular will lean on its customer base of 2.85 million subscribers. The company aims to sell 15,000 GrandPads this year. And in three years, 500,000 people could be using at least one of its new caregiving products, Marick said.

Lean Operation

Consumer Cellular resells wireless capacity from T-Mobile US Inc. and AT&T Inc. It has no stores, only four call centers that answer customers’ questions. The company’s lineup includes flip phones with oversized buttons, as well as the usual Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. devices.

The GrandPad’s touch screen features large digital buttons, such as “call,” “photos” and “new email.” Only approved senders’ messages will go to the email box, weeding out spam and scams.

This summer, a specially designed version of Lyft Inc.’s app will be added to the screen as well: It will let seniors press large buttons saying “church” or “home” to catch rides to preset addresses. The app will also be able to notify caregivers that their charges arrived at their destinations safely.

Consumer Cellular invested in the California startup that makes the GrandPad in December, and the carrier will become the exclusive distributor of the product in the U.S., Marick said.

The motion-sensor system, meanwhile, is still being tested. Accompanying software and a mobile app will use artificial intelligence to draw conclusions from the sensor data: For instance, they’ll notify caregivers if a senior who is always up at 8 a.m. hasn’t stirred by 9. The company is working with Samsung on the the service, Marick said.

The approach is similar to how the company first broke into the mobile-phone market, Marick said. It’s taking a wireless technology and making it mainstream.

“In a lot of ways it’s kind of going back to our roots,” Marick said. “Let’s bring cellular to the masses.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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