Lots of companies over the years have thrived on undercutting incumbent operators’ prices for long-distance and international calls. Calling cards and callback systems are the two oldest and most common examples; VoIP is a more recent one. Lots of companies have targeted the mobile market as well, either just through marketing, or with products geared towards mobile users, but their underlying proposition remains the same: cheaper calls.
Last summer, I mentioned Rebtel, which (among other things) gave users local numbers for their international contacts. So instead of dialing the international number, you’d dial the local number, then the call would get routed through Rebtel’s VoIP network at cheaper rates. It’s a novel idea, and apparently one worth copying, as another mobile VoIP company, Jajah, has announced a similar feature.
I’ve always been a little intrigued by this market because it strikes me as one that exists only because mobile operators allow it to. If they felt threatened, they could just slice their call charges, and undercut the undercutters — but they don’t (for the most part), meaning they’re comfortable with the small part of the market these players are taking being offset by their higher prices. Meanwhile, operators like 3 partner with the likes of Skype, offering another workaround for users.
The operators also have a tremendous advantage on their side: convenience. Users just dial, and calls go through. No messing around with setting up local numbers, no second account to maintain, and so on. This is particularly true when it comes to international roaming. Certainly most roamers would be better off getting local SIMs when they travel outside their home country, but keeping them topped up and having multiple numbers is a real hassle.
The real potential disruptor here is somebody who can draw all of this together into a unified, easy, experience, that offers lowest-cost routing and roaming with seamless forwarding and following. We’re starting to see some of this emerge in bits and pieces, like from Grand Central (which focuses on the inbound experience), and from MaxRoam (which is centered on international roaming). But nobody has yet put together the full package. Who will?