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Flexiroam launches app for global roaming local rates

The Malaysian company has launched an app that allows travellers to use local call and messaging rates worldwide, as well as cheaper data packages.

Malaysian telecommunications service provider Flexiroam has launched an app that provides a solution for the high cost of global roaming, enabling users to own up to 50 virtual international numbers via which they can make and receive calls and messages using local rates and cheaper data worldwide.

The free iOS and Android app, launched on Tuesday, will provide travellers with cheaper voice and text services to more than 200 countries and territories.

"With the Flexiroam app now being approved by both Apple and Android, we are extremely excited to showcase our new product to the world," said Flexiroam CEO Jef Ong in a statement.

"The app is perfect for all segments of travellers. It is a very secure app, and is designed to meet all forms of users' communication needs: Voice calls, video calls, instant messaging, and other collaborative tools. This makes it one of the most comprehensive communication apps in the market."

Listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in June, Flexiroam was founded with the purpose of filling a gap it perceived in the global roaming market: To reduce bill shock for business travellers, and to provide an alternative to owning several SIMs or even separate handsets for use within different countries.

"Flexiroam started primarily with the aim to really help travellers to cut down their data and voice roaming charges," Ong told ZDNet in August.

"There's no perfect solution in the market, depending on what customers want, so you can either buy an overseas prepaid [SIM] -- but you lose your number -- or you use your SIM and roam on a plan, but come back and end up with bill shock."

The newly launched app provides calls and texts at prices more than 70 percent cheaper than its competitors already in the market, according to the company, as well as free Flexiroam-to-Flexiroam communications.

The data packages have yet to be priced, though Ong said they will be "much lower than what you get in the market right now".

The app syncs a user's contacts from their phone's address book, and allows them to send and receive messages and make calls to any contact, regardless of whether they also have the app.

"You just install it on your phone, and you basically have everything in there: You have all your contacts synced, you can do messaging -- group messaging or personal messaging -- you can make calls, and you can buy international numbers to the app, so you might have four or five different countries' numbers connected to the app, and any one of them that calls you on a local call goes through the app. And you can also make calls internationally at very attractive rates," Ong told ZDNet.

If someone makes a call to a Flexiroam user, this too goes through the app. Again, it works even if the caller doesn't have the app, resulting in both parties seeing discounted rates.

Ong explained that the company decided to list on the ASX due to the success that Malaysian and Singaporean tech companies have seen in the country. He added that Australia will make an ideal test bed for the new app, because there is a high percentage of smartphone users.

As of August, the company's initial business of SIM card distribution had 300,000 users, primarily in its home market of Malaysia. It also launched in India after partnering with Knowlarity, stating that entering the Indian market could add up to 18 million potential users.

Ong said the app is set apart from competitors such as WhatsApp and Facebook's Messenger by allowing users to call landlines, use multiple international numbers, and contact people who don't have the app. All data is encrypted, according to Ong.

"With WhatsApp, you can only call someone else who has WhatsApp ... and also WhatsApp doesn't allow you to call landline, you can only call mobile ... and, most importantly, WhatsApp only allows you to carry one number; with Flexiroam, you can carry up to 50 numbers at a time from different countries, so it's a more business-suited communication collaboration," he explained.

Ong told ZDNet that Flexiroam's app works by piggybacking off local unused capacity, leasing it off providers. In Australia, the company has partnered with Optus to provide a network for its users while travelling there.

"Optus gives us the best rate, and also the best quality, so we use Optus in our roaming," he said. "In each country, they always have a few operators competing, and they always have unused capacity."

He explained that telcos in every country generally hold onto their unused capacity, because selling it could result in increasing their competitors' market share.

"Domestically, it could have been very competitive, and probably the mobile penetration rate is above 100 percent [in Australia], which means it's just shifting the market share ... so there's no one going to use the unused capacity except for the travellers, and that's where Flexiroam's value proposition to the mobile provider is."

Ong argued that his company brings potentially more than 300,000 customers to the network already when they travel to the country, taking business to local carriers.

"They're just going to lease their infrastructure to me at a much cheaper rate, and they're not going to use it anyway, so they might as well make some money by renting it to me, and I'll guarantee them our customers coming in," Ong pointed out.

The company has also partnered with around 60 travel agencies as well as airlines like Air Asia, meaning it is able to forecast the data and voice that will be used by Flexiroam travellers before they even arrive at their destinations, and lease network capacity accordingly.

The app is available "almost everywhere in the world", with the only exceptions being such countries as North Korea and the Seychelles.

At the beginning of October, Flexiroam was also awarded 300,000 Malaysian ringgit [PDF] (just under AU$97,000) by the Malaysian government to aid in the research and development and marketing of its mobile roaming app.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) had provided finances from its Creative Industry Development Fund to subsidise Flexiroam's R&D and commercialisation.

"We are very pleased to have been awarded a government grant for the development of Flexiroam's new app. This award validates our excellent growth potential and reinforces our ongoing commitment to deliver optimal outcomes with mobile roaming technology," Ong said at the time.

In return, Flexiroam opened the app to local embassies and merchants, which are now able to broadcast real-time announcements and advertisements to travellers. The announcements will arrive in the form of push notifications, providing another revenue source for the company.

"Not only will the Flexiroam travel app offer subscribers an affordable means to communicate abroad, it will also provide Flexiroam with additional revenue streams, enabling us to develop new services for consumers," Ong said.

"With the number of budget travellers continuing to increase in Asia and roaming costs remaining excessive, there is a clear need for affordable roaming solutions. The support we have received from the government is a strong endorsement of Flexiroam's potential to continue developing innovative technology solutions, positioning us as leaders in the mobile roaming market."

On October 5, Flexiroam announced that it collaborated with the Selangor Information Technology and E-commerce Council (SITEC), an entity under the Selangor State Government of Malaysia, on the development of an 11,000-square metre innovation centre and startup hub called the Selangor Digital Creative Centre.

As a result of Flexiroam assisting in the development of the startup hub, SITEC will promote Flexiroam to Selangor government agencies and government-linked companies, and will recruit at government-funded Coding Schools.

Flexiroam is also looking to launch a desktop version of its app for use on Apple and Windows PCs.

Earlier this month, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was revealed to be encouraging its 12 member states to promote more transparent and reasonable costs for international mobile roaming services in order to support the growth of trade and improve consumer interests, but fell short of explicitly requiring regulation.

The full text of the TPP was published on the website for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade a month after reaching agreement, with the treaty aiming to regulate trade between Malaysia, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, and Chile.

The wording of Article 13.6 of the Telecommunications chapter [PDF], which covers international mobile roaming, is fairly soft, however, with the TPP simply stating that members "may choose to adopt or maintain measures affecting rates for wholesale international roaming services with a view to ensuring that those rates are reasonable".

"Nothing in this Article shall require a party to regulate rates or conditions for international mobile roaming services," part 7 of the Article states. Rather, parties must simply "endeavour to cooperate on promoting transparent and reasonable rates".

If parties deem it "appropriate", they may also work alongside other member states to implement mechanisms for ensuring roaming rates are reasonable.

In addition to Flexiroam, a number of other Pacific Rim telcos and other providers have previously worked to improve global roaming costs, with Vodafone Australia offering customers on its Red plans international roaming capped at AU$5 per day and Apple selling a SIM in Australia, the US, the UK, and several European countries that allows customers to switch between mobile providers on short-term prepaid plans in each country.

Google is also reportedly negotiating with UK telco Hutchison on a wholesale access agreement to provide Google's US MVNO customers to make calls, send messages, and use data anywhere in the world for only the cost of their usual plan.