If you travel overseas, chances are you often get a sky-high surprise from your mobile phone service after your plane has landed.
It happened to me about three years ago. I was on a vacation trip to Hong Kong when my elderly mother took a turn for the worse. Sprint socked me with a $400 phone bill when I got home.
It could have been worse. Before I left I signed up for a special Hong Kong calling plan. Otherwise the bill would have been $1,200.
Roam4Free CEO Pat Phelan hopes to set road warriors free from this particular kind of tyranny.
Last week the Cork, Ireland-based MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) launched its prepaid mobile phone service that lets callers use mobile phones when traveling abroad with incurring roaming charges. “It’s really the final frontier,” Phelan says. “People shouldn’t have to pay these kinds of charges when they travel.”
Roam4Free’s charges are considerably less than other mobile carriers. “You can roam and you can call home for forty to fifty cents a minute — as cheaply as a landline call,” comments Phelan. Inbound calls in most places are free.
So far customers seem to agree. “In the last 24 hours we’ve got 50 orders and 70 percent of them are from the U.S.,” Phelan says.
Roam4Free works with a SIM card that you buy from the company for €20. It comes with a €5 in calling credit and can be re-charged at the company website. With the SIM you get a new cell phone number for the Roam4Free service. Initially the company is offering only European phone numbers. U.S. and U.K. numbers will be available in the next two months.
But my phone is locked, you say? Not to worry. Roam4Free offers a €9.50 service on its website that provides the numeric codes for unlocking most phones. “Seventy percent of phones can be unlocked on our site,” says Phelan. “It takes two minutes.”
If your phone isn’t on the list, or you don’t want to monkey with it, there’s a simple solution. Buy a cheap phone for travel. (You might also want to do this so you can keep your main phone number operational.)
Making calls from you Roam4Free service is a callback process. You call the international number as you would normally. The call disconnects. Then Roam4Free calls you back and connects you to the number you’re calling.
Phelan isn’t a fan of VoIP-over-mobile calling — another way to cut roaming costs — for a couple of reasons.
First there’s the problem of finding a WiFi signal to carry the call. (A non-trivial problem. As I write this, I’m working in a café and wondering what happened to the municipal WiFi signal I used to pick up here.)
Second, there’s the smart phone requirement. “Ninety percent of the world has a €50 handset, not a €600 handset. And those people are making long distance calls.”
However, an opportunity Phelan thinks VoIP providers are missing is the market for pre-paid calling.
“There are people who want Skype, Jajah and myBlueZebra who don’t have credit cards. How do they pay for the service? I’m a huge believer in pre-pay. That’s an area we’re looking at very closely.”
Next up for Roam4Free is a premium account, which will give customers local numbers that forward calls to the Roam4Free SIM. “You’ll be able to roam the world with a local number,” says Phelan. “People won’t have to know where you are before they call you.”
How will established mobile carriers respond? “Right now roaming charges are 22 percent of any network’s charges,” comments Phelan. “I hope they’re going to make an effort to fight back.” Certainly we would all benefit.