It's a grim scene, international roaming. When a cross-border flight lands, you can tell who on the plane lives in the country you've arrived in, because they're the ones who take out their phones immediately. Unless, of course, someone on board has figured out a clever workaround.
Most of us face unpleasant choices when using our phones abroad. You can pay your carrier's high rates for a roaming package, which typically offers ridiculously low data caps in exchange for a gut-punch on your monthly bill.
The alternate solution is better and cheaper, but it's a hassle: You can buy a cheap SIM card in your destination country that essentially makes your phone into a local phone, paying local rates on a short-term contract. (SIM cards are tiny chips that give a phone its identity, tying it to your phone number, and your cell-phone carrier.)
But what a pain: You have to go to a store, buy the chip, sign paperwork to become a customer of this new network, and fiddle with the inside of your phone – and get a whole new phone number.
Enter KnowRoaming, a Toronto startup that's promising cheaper roaming without the chip-swapping hassle. Its basic premise: What if, when a phone moved between countries, the SIM card automatically changed itself?
"Our model was to create a roaming solution that emulates traditional roaming," says Greg Gundelfinger, KnowRoaming's CEO. The service acts like a roaming service to the user, including forwarding on all incoming calls made to their usual number. But behind the scenes, KnowRoaming is performing a fancy dance of SIM-card swapping.
To make this work, KnowRoaming applies a tiny, two-hair thick electronic sticker onto your existing SIM card. (It comes with an applicator to facilitate the process.) When you're in your home country, the sticker is dormant. But when it detects that you've moved into a new country, it comes to life and interposes itself, effectively becoming a new SIM card.
"When the customer starts to travel, they'll switch over automatically to our network, and still receive all their incoming calls from their Rogers, Bell or TELUS SIM cards," says Gundelfinger. (KnowRoaming uses a call-forwarding setup to connect them.)
To provide the signal, KnowRoaming has struck deals with about 200 networks around the world – companies that effectively wholesale connectivity on behalf of the local mainstream carriers. Rates on these local networks vary, but Gundelfinger says users will save 70 to 85 per cent compared to roaming rates through he carriers. To pay, users download an app, which they can use to deposit funds and check rates in different areas.
The Toronto-based firm has been working in secret for two years – its sticker technology is entirely custom-built – and only announced itself when it needed to move from a small private beta to a large-scale one. The first 500 of 3,500 beta kits were set to ship this month; the remainder will be out by February, and a public commercial launch will hopefully follow soon.
The launch was helped along by a Kickstarter campaign – Gundelfinger gave the firm 45 days to sell the 3,500 kits. In the event, they sold out in 72 hours. Interest in making international communication more bearable can only roam upwards.