As we small-business travelers know,
are not shy about showing their ugly monopolistic roots when it comes to international mobile calling. Expect $1 per minute; nutty international roaming fees; 25-cent per-text charges; and country-to-country calling levies. And heaven forbid you use the mobile Web.
You just spent more on calling than on airfare.
So it is with guarded optimism that I have been testing a low-cost,
Android-based international calling app called Rebtel. Created by Hjalmar Winbladh and Jonas Lindroth in 2006, Swedish-based Rebtel is attempting to rewire international calling by offering crazy-steep discounts on overseas calls -- including an option where mobile world calling can actually be free!
Andreas Bernstrom, company CEO, gave me a demo this summer. I have been giving the tool the small-business once-over since.
What you get:
This is a viable, if a tad challenging, low-cost way to call overseas.
What Rebtel does is simple: It divides the parts of an international call into discrete low-cost steps. First, like many calling cards, it maintains a series of local dial-in numbers in roughly 50 countries that are connected internationally via supercheap bulk calling lines. But rather than asking users to fuss with complex calling card dial-in numbers and access codes -- or making them use a Web-based identity as Skype does -- Rebtel builds all that calling infrastructure into a free app that can be downloaded on Android phones. (I'll spare you the techno nitty-gritty, but the system actually changes the number being dialed. Callers aren't bothered with the details unless they want to be.)
Once running -- a major caveat on that in a second -- Rebtel worked as advertised. I downloaded and installed the app from the Android Market to my demo
Droid X, loaded it with my local phone info, bought $10 worth of credit and proceeded to make and receive international calls. Rates ran about 20 cents per minute for calls to France and Italy. It even worked with Italian phones roaming here in America.
It all worked out to be 80% less than what Verizon charges in my testing. Awesome.
Even cooler is when both callers are using the Rebtel app and calls can be paid for out of existing in-plan cell minutes. In other words, done right, Rebtel takes that pricey international cell call and makes it cost absolutely nothing extra. What's not to love about that?
What you don't get:
Technophobes, be warned: Rebtel, as cool as it is, is an early-stage, Android-only, basically DIY service that takes real effort to install and troubleshoot.
There is no
OS deployment yet, and that really does limit the utility of the tool. I found no other Android users among dozens of international colleagues and friends.
Plus, installation is not as seamless as Rebtel makes it sound. It took about a half-dozen installs to get the international dial-in prefix on my phone to work as Rebtel expected it. It had me living in Istanbul for my first five tries. And the app can bicker with other cell-telephony options, mainly Skype Mobile, which comes pre-installed on many phones.
Yes, you can make it work, but you have to be up for the task.
Rebtel works. And it is hard not to pull for the 14-person firm. But you need to be realistic about bringing this tool into small-business prime time.
Still, considering that we are talking about saving literally hundreds of dollars for an overseas trip, and dealing with a platform potentially not as restrictive as Skype, Rebtel is worth a try.
When you make it work, it's a sweet deal in overseas calling.
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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.