Wi-Fi-driven mobile carrier Scratch Wireless launches its ‘free’ service in beta

After months of conducting trials behind the scenes, virtual operator Scratch Wireless is opening up its cellular-as-a-last-resort service to the public in beta. You can register to receive an invitation on Scratch’s website.

Scratch bills itself as a provider of “free” mobile and SMS service, and that’s true if you keep all of your calls to Wi-Fi networks. Scratch founder and CEO Alan Berrey is promoting the idea that Wi-Fi is now so ubiquitous and available that only in rare circumstances would you need to use the cellular network to make a call or access mobile internet. Scratch has built its business model around that premise.

Scratch Wireless Wi-Fi graphic

On the instances where you need access and Wi-Fi is unavailable, Scratch will sell you a small bucket of minutes or data on Sprint’s(s s) network. Prices start at $2 for either a one-day 30-voice minute or 25MB plan, while monthly plans run $15 and include either 250 minutes or 200 MBs.

It’s a bit naïve to think that people will just stumble into vast pools of open Wi-Fi wherever they wander with their smartphones. But I don’t think that’s what Scratch is claiming. Rather, it’s asking people to think about mobile voice and data in a different way. Instead of paying for constant connectivity, its customers will proactively seek out Wi-Fi and use their own judgment on when and where to use their voice and data communications services.

If you haven’t trained yourself to hunt down open Wi-Fi or limit most of your smartphone activity to places where you know reliable Wi-Fi is available, this kind of model isn’t going to be attractive regardless of how cheap it is. It helps a lot, though, that Scratch exempts all SMS from charges — whether over Wi-Fi or on the Sprint network — so you can always remain in text communication.

Scratch is selling its initial phone, the Motorola(s goog) Photon Q for $269 to customers after they receive their beta invites.