Many Canadians fear incurring crippling roaming charges
when they use their cellphones in the United States. A Canadian startup is looking to change that.
said Thursday it will launch a service Jan. 16 offering flat fees that are competitive with U.S. prices and a far cry from roaming charges set by Canada's biggest wireless carriers.
Emir Aboulhosn, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based Roam Mobility, said that the service will work because there is a definite need. “There was a report last year that said Canada had the highest roaming rates in the world,” he said. “We have 18 million Canadians that cross the border every single year and we knew that Rogers and Telus and Bell were making a lot of money off of it.”
In partnership with T-Mobile in the U.S., Roam Mobility will offer flat fee unlimited voice and text packages starting at $15 for three days, as well as data packages starting at $20 for 500 MB. However, users will need an unlocked GSM cellphone into which a U.S. SIM card will have to be installed, or buy a $30 “feature phone” or a wireless hotspot device the company will sell.
Aboulhosn said the project to make a better roaming solution for Canadians started 18 months ago with a pilot company. “We had a small company which we designed as a proof of concept and we quickly used it as a model, in terms of building a wireless provider that’s dedicated around providing roaming services,”
Aboulhosn thinks his company has a good chance of succeeding because the sheer amount of market research that was conducted before taking the plunge. “We used U.S. government and Canadian government research statistics,” he said. “We also hired people to do surveying for us as well and had a small customer base to do research with and businesses to conduct focus groups and research with.”
Amit Kaminer, a research analyst with the Montreal-based SeaBoard Group, appreciates any new market options for reducing roaming charges, but isn’t ready to call RM a winner. “Plenty of others companies out there do (International SIM cards) as well,” he said. “The secret sauce, besides the cost, is to make the experience as easy and seamless as possible for consumers.”
Kaminer said that, while RM is certainly cheaper than roaming packages offered by the big three Canadian carriers, it’s not substantially cheaper than calling cards, buying a prepaid SIM card while in the U.S. or using a VoIP service from a coffee shop hotspot. The real challenge is still convenience. And while phones can still be locked in Canada, putting in a new SIM card is challenging, if not impossible for some travelers.
Aboulhosn acknowledged this stumbling block but thinks it’s a temporary one. “Telus will unlock your phone (for a fee), and Wind [Mobile] and Mobilicity sell unlocked devices,” he said. “The strongest growing market right now is prepaid in general, especially in the U.S.” This, he said, is pushing Canadian carriers to provide unlocking options, if not straight-out selling unlocked devices.
Aboulhson also thinks that by creating a dedicated network with T-Mobile using its wide 4G network, users will have better, more stable connectivity and both faster and cheaper service than if they paid full price for a roaming package.
Ideally, he wants to bring an end to what he calls “Starbucks tourists.” The point of RM is to offer an easy alternative with no hidden fees. Like competing services, the allure of Roam Mobility is that you will never pay more than the up front fee, taking the fear out of roaming. This makes the service more attractive to businesses who, he said, are excited to invest in a fleet of hotspots and SIM cards. He said the company has already attracted the most attention from businesses looking for cheaper and easier to implement data and voice solutions.