Phone Home (Cheap�from Beijng)

PhoneFusion One program will let Olympic visitors maintain phone contact from China for pennies.

By Adam Stone | Posted Aug 4, 2008
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While the strong and the brave vie for gold on Beijing fields this summer, another kind of event will be taking place outside the stadia, and service provide PhoneFusion hopes to come out a winner.

Call it an Olympic phone-a-thon: Half a million spectators, trainers, athletes, vendors, all looking for a way to call home without breaking the bank.

PhoneFusion sees a big opportunity here. With 500,000 people expect to converge on Beijing from other nations, PhoneFusion executives say, a company with a cheap and reliable oversees calling solution ought to be able to make serious hay.

PhoneFusion is known primarily for its call-forward products. Subscribers get a permanent telephone number and all incoming calls to that number are routed to previously programmed numbers. This makes the user available at home, on the cell, in the office and elsewhere.

The company's China initiative builds off of this capability.

A user arrives in Beijing and buys a local SIM card for $10 to$15, giving the cell phone a local number. Next the user (who must be a PhoneFusion subscriber) logs into the PhoneFusion One service and registers the new phone. Now incoming calls to the main number will be forwarded to Beijing.

As for outgoing calls from the Games, users have two choices.

Through PhoneFusion One's Make-a-Call feature at the service's web site, the user enters his Beijing number and the number he wishes to call. PhoneFusion One dials the subscriber and connects the two parties.

Alternately, the subscriber can send an email message from a mobile phone to callmenow@phonefusion.com. The email would include contact information for the subscriber. PhoneFusion calls the subscriber back, making it possible for the subscriber to call worldwide by pressing #9.

So much for the mechanics of the thing. For the marketing play to draw the attention of likely buyers, the money has got to be right.

In fact, PhoneFusion says it can save users amazing green by setting them free of mainstream international calling programs.

"We've contracted with some carriers to give us some really low rates to dial to Beijing," said Executive Vice President Jonathan Hollander, who founded PhoneFusion along with Michael Self. While he can't name the carriers, for competitive reasons, Hollander said the company is offering users international calling between the U.S. and China at 3.4 cents a minute on either land or cell lines.

It's not easy to strike such deals. The company labored from January to May to nail down the appropriate carrier. "You can get a long distance carrier overnight, but there is an issue when you are trying to find a good rate and making sure that the quality of the calls is good. That is what took a little longer," Hollander said.

As to quality of calls, and quality of service overall for that matter, PhoneFusion took no chances. The company sent a representative to Beijing to put the service through its paces, to make things would go smoothly for users once the crowds started coming in.

This proved a worthwhile effort.

In its original plan, the company wanted to the call-back feature to be triggered by a text message, rather than an email. It turned out prepaid SIM cards in China don't support texting. Those early trials, which led to the email solution, saved the company a lot of last-minute hassles.

Hollander doesn't know how much the company stands to gain from its efforts. PhoneFusion has 40,000 active phone lines subscribed to its service and has been watching to see how many inquiries come in regarding overseas coverage during the run-up to the Games, but the outcome is by no means certain.

If the company can take home a gold from Beijing, it likely will use its experiences there to broaden its efforts to provide international connections.

Hollander says the money drives the business logic. For a five-minute call to China PhoneFusion will charge under half a dollar, versus $10 and up among the major carriers.

The price gap "is something that needs to be taken up very seriously with all the wireless carriers in the United States. It's really very sad, but the bottom line is that this is simply what the carriers choose to charge to roam internationally," Hollander said.

Meanwhile, for PhoneFusion, "it tells us there is an enormous need for what we do."

Editor's Note: While it turns out that this solution does not involve VoIP—as we assumed going in—it is nonetheless a cool application, and one that accomplishes one of the same things as VoIP: saving money. It is also probably our only shot at publishing an Olympics-related story. Thanks.

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