Roaming, Roaming, Gone

United Mobile, a Swiss-based telecom, is crafting a solution to the high price of roaming for the walking, talking public.

Roaming costs are expensive.

The U.S. branch of T-Mobile charges .99 cents per minute for roaming in Europe, for both incoming and outgoing calls. This means an American T-Mobile customer visiting England pays about $30 for a half-hour call. Although the European Union has recently regulated roaming charges, the price is not right: Europeans now pay 49 euro-cents (71 cents US) per minute to dial out and 24 euro-cents per minute (35 cents US) to accept a call.

United Mobile, a Swiss-based telecommunications company, is offering a solution to relieve the walking, talking public of such high fees. Customers using the United Mobile SIM card have their roaming charges reduced to as low as 29 euro-cents (42 cents US) per minute for outgoing calls (with a 24 euro-cents connection fee for each call). And in 80 countries, receiving calls is absolutely free. Its not bargain-basement pricing, but its a cheaper option than prepaid services and most international plans.

GSM cell phone users can replace their SIM cards with United Mobiles cards. Using the networks of 300 companies in 140 countries, United Mobile transparently negotiates the cheapest rate for its dialers by sidestepping roaming fees altogether: its as if your call connects within the same network.

And it does so by using a 15-year-old technology that has been all but abandoned—call-backs.


To read more about T-Mobile signing partners to a Wi-Fi roaming deal, click here.

Call-backs work by dialing a "trigger" number and hanging up. After receiving the call, the user dials the number he or she wants to reach. The service then reaches that number using its own network. Using United Mobile, users dial the number they wish to reach, using the full country code (for example, +41 for Switzerland). They are disconnected, and their service calls them back within 5 seconds. There is little lag and no fumbling with extra numbers, said Sven Donhuysen, former CEO and current president of United Mobile. The technology is "totally seamless and user-friendly. This is really a mass-market product."

United Mobile even offers SIM cards that provide both voice and data transfer, which the EU regulations did not rein in. Investor Andreas Rueter said, "If you fly out to Spain and have a one-hour download of 5MB, its more than 100 euros…. United Mobile has cut [the charge] down to a couple of euros."

Although United Mobile has reduced charges, theyre still expensive within the United States. "We have mobile termination charges, and we have to pay them because we have no local interconnect," Donhuysen said. However, United Mobile is actively working on entering the US market. "Were just readying our offer."

Donhuysen estimates a less-expensive rate will be available in the US market in December or January.

United Mobile is still, by telecom standards, a small company (for example, it doesnt offer landlines). But its business model managed to attract the attention of venture capitalists, including Morten Lund, one of the initial investors in Skype.

Rueter, a partner with Grazia Equity, explained that his firm invested in United Mobile because it met Grazias requirements. "For a venture capitalist, the key preferences for investment are the market must be there and growing; there must be a potential to grow in a significant size in a short timeframe; and there must be an excellent management team and investors in place." The management team now includes heavy-hitter Charles Fraenkl, former CEO of AOL in Germany and currently United Mobiles CEO.

The market for inexpensive phone calls can always use a little competition, and United Mobile may find it with Skype, which now has a mobile product "based on a service with Hutchinson in the UK," said Donhuysen. However, Skypes service "is good if youre local and if you want to make local calls, but its not a roaming product."

Fraenkl said, "Were the best way to ensure that American travelers abroad get the fairest deal... Were talking 60 percent plus off their bill."

It may not be the ultimate solution for roaming cellphone charges, but at least now you can afford to tell your friends about it.


Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.