Truphone MVNO deal with Vodafone starts roaming challenge
Geraldine Wilson: We've always wanted to be
phone provider in our own right. The first two countries
are the UK and the US, but others are on her target
How much are you paying for international phone calls? This
is a question that could be asked of most people, from
backpacking students to global business leaders - unless the
businesses they lead are making money from mobile roaming.
If you're in the mobile business, and making good sums from
people roaming onto your network, you need to know about
Geraldine Wilson, CEO of venture capital-backed Truphone. It's
her mission to slash mobile roaming charges.
"We're completely focused on people with international
lifestyles," says Wilson, a former executive with Vodafone and
Yahoo!, who joined Truphone in October 2008. "People use us for
free or low-cost international calls."
The company is backed by a number of VC investors, including
Eden Ventures, which funded Apertio in 2002 and sold it to
Nokia Siemens Networks for £242 million in 2008. Previous
successes of partners in Eden include Cramer Systems, bought by
Amdocs in 2006 for $425 million. Truphone's backers have
provided around £39 million over the past four years,
The company started by providing an application that allowed
people to make voice over IP calls over wifi from suitably
equipped phones, cutting out normal mobile call costs,
particularly when roaming internationally.
"The application can be downloaded onto a number of
smartphones, including the iPhone, the BlackBerry and Android
phones. We were the first VoIP provider on the Nexus One phone
Customers in 140 countries
This business has expanded as wifi becomes more and more
common on mobile phones. "We now have customers in 140
countries," adds Wilson, who joined the company after a spell
as the general manager of Yahoo! Mobile Europe.
But the company has now built an all-mobile platform, and it
is on the way to becoming an international mobile virtual
This new service, called Truphone Local Anywhere, has
started off with an MVNO agreement in the UK with Vodafone. But
Wilson's aim is to be more than an infrastructure-free
"We've always wanted to be a phone provider in our own
right," says Wilson. "Now we've built a single platform." That
includes its own home location register, supplied by NSN. "We
have everything except the radio network. The magic source is
how we put them all together."
But what does it actually do? The idea of Truphone Local
Anywhere is that it will provide consumers with a range of
local numbers in different countries - and access to local
rates for calls, texts and data on a single SIM card.
"The first two countries we're operating in are the UK and
the US," says Wilson. "So an American living in London can have
a US number and a UK number on their SIM card." And so
colleagues, friends and relatives in the US can call at
national US rates, not international rates.
That implies Truphone also has an MVNO deal with a US
carrier. Yes, says Wilson. "We haven't revealed who, yet. We'll
do that in a couple of months. It's part of a bigger story.
We're doing something else as well. We're not your normal MVNO:
we have a bigger play in the US."
Apart from the mysterious US connection - which has to be
with a GSM player, because of the importance of the SIM card.
That means AT&T or T-Mobile are the likeliest partners, as
Sprint and Verizon are both SIM-free CDMA operators, but Wilson
would give no hint.
After that, Truphone has identified "more than 20 countries
around the world" as targets for further MVNO deals. "We can
manage all these multiple identities, so when you travel to any
Truphone country you can enjoy local rates."
Customers are not automatically provided with a range of
international numbers. "When you get off the plane in the US
you get a text message asking if you want a local number and
local rates," says Wilson. "You can also choose a US number
before you leave."
Other countries on her target list include Australia and
Hong Kong, "and South Africa for the World Cup", which implies
that something may happen before the football championships
start on June 11 2010. "We're very close to signing some deals,
and some are signed but not announced."
Places include "obvious financial centres, plus holiday and
travel destinations". Truphone will be making a pitch at people
with holiday homes. "I have one in Spain," so she has a Spanish
pay-as-you-go mobile for her trips there. "I am motivated to
get a deal in Spain, but we have not signed any yet."
Truphone's rate card says that calls to Spanish landline
numbers from the UK are £0.08 a minute, compared with the
normal mobile rate of around £0.35. Calls to Spanish
mobiles are £0.20 from Truphone. Receiving calls is free
- while regular operators charge £0.18 a minute.
The model "is as much about convenience as anything else",
Wilson notes. When you're in a foreign country you may be
willing to make calls to local numbers "but other people there
will not want to call international mobile numbers". Give them
a national mobile number to call, and they'll be happier.
Truphone will be pitching its services at six target market
segments, from students and other leisure travellers, to small
and large business users, and "people who travel on assignment,
such as people in fashion and music, and consultants".
She's looking for "people who are spending thousands a
month" in business or expatriates "who are spending up to
£100 a month", she adds. "They are the high
At first, based on the two existing MVNO deals, "we're
targeting multinational companies in the UK and the US", she
says. She thinks the proposition will be attractive for "the
top 20% of users in the UK and the top 10% in the US".
The offer includes the full range of services, including
voice, SMS and data. "Data is a very big part of the
proposition," says Wilson. Truphone charges £0.50 a
megabyte for data, compared with £1.50 charged by regular
But, unlike the earlier version of the Truphone service,
which required wifi-equipped smartphones, the Local Anywhere
service can be operated from any unlocked GSM phone, "right
down to a standard 2G Nokia", she says.
"All of the clever stuff is in the cloud. We pretty much
have a number for every country on the planet. We can manage
your profile in the cloud."
Has Truphone lined up partnerships with operators around the
world? "We're open for business for partnerships with
operators," she says. "We're on a mission to cover 25 countries
this year and next.
The next deal to be announced will be "in a major territory
with a major operator", says Wilson. At the moment Truphone
appears to be talking to individual national companies, because
MVNO deals are quicker to do on a national basis. "We are
talking to some regional groups, but speed is of the essence,"
Wilson says. "We've designed the whole system to be scalable -
we like to go into a country and meet all the available
operators. The approach differs country by country."
It's complex, though, because Truphone needs complex
technology to achieve its goal. "The deals we've not announced
yet all fit the technical solution - and they're pretty light
touch for the operators."
The company was ready to sign one deal - again, no details -
but decided against because the technical interface was too
complex. "The operator took another look and can now do it with
our technical solution."
It's clearly early days for Truphone, and it's impossible to
say how the company will perform until it starts building up an
international portfolio of MVNO partners and starts gathering
customers in significant numbers.
It has a sizeable technical team - with more than 140 staff
in all, across a number of countries, including Australia,
Portugal and Singapore.
One concern must be that global operators, such as Orange,
Telefónica or Vodafone, could respond quickly to an
international competitive challenge by slashing their roaming
rates - by offering, for example, something close to Zain's One
Network, which means most of its customers in Africa and the
Middle East pay a standard rate for making and receiving calls,
even when they're travelling.
But Wilson is optimistic. "We have the chance to be
something really exciting," she says: "the chance to be the
first global mobile operator. I can't think of any more
exciting job on the planet." GTB