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Friday, March 16, 2012

Rebtel: the mobile VoIP rebel that speaks its mind

Mark Bridge writes:

Back in the 1960s, Hertz was the number one hire car company in the USA. Avis was trailing a long way behind. Looking for a new advertising campaign, CEO Robert Townsend spoke to Bill Bernbach - the ‘B’ in ad agency DDB - and a few months later “We try harder” became the Avis tagline.

“Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars” the headlines admitted. “We try harder. When you’re not the biggest, you have to.”

It’s a message I was reminded of when I met Andreas Bernström at Mobile World Congress last month. Andreas is CEO of Rebtel, the world’s second-largest mobile Voice-over-IP company. With Skype seen as market leader for VoIP services, I asked Andreas whether Rebtel also needed to try harder.

“I think any person who’s smaller and trying to disrupt the incumbent has to be better”, explained Andreas. “I mean, we need to be better at customer services, we need to be better on price, we need to be better on innovation.”

“From our perspective Skype are almost becoming an operator. They have connect charges, they are expensive to certain destinations, they have packages that people need to buy, they’re quite complicated to understand, their mobile solution is essentially a PC solution that’s been shoved onto a mobile phone. We’re very much designed specifically for mobiles, we try to do it in a way that’s intuitive for the user, we’re typically considerably cheaper than they are, we try to propagate ‘free’ as much as possible; so I think that would probably be quite a fair statement that we do try harder.”

Rebtel is a company with disruption running through its veins; the link between Rebtel and rebel is no coincidence. So does anyone in the mobile industry actually like Rebtel?

Andreas isn’t bothered. “I kind of look at it from a consumer’s perspective. What we’re doing is hugely enjoyed by the customer. Whether or not the operators like us or not, I don’t really care. Having said that, on a wholesale side, operators love us. There’s basically nobody in the market actually increasing volumes of minutes - but we’re going from half a billion minutes to a billion minutes to 1.6 billion. So somebody who is selling in the wholesale space thinks Rebtel’s the best customer since sliced bread.”

Although the direct-to-consumer side of network operators may not like Rebtel, Andreas says there has been a noticeable change in the last 12 months. Networks who previously didn’t want to talk with him are now investigating the possibility of white-label VoIP solutions that could be used for their own-brand free internet calling services.

But it’s not just the networks that are changing. Rebtel is looking to develop its services so they can be ‘dropped into’ applications as widgets, enabling mobile developers to add calling and messaging to a wide variety of apps. In addition, it’s also investigating the possibility of becoming an aggregator to connect between rival VoIP services. As for the longer-term future, Rebtel has its eye on mobile money transfers as well.

Yes, total customer numbers show that Skype is ahead at the moment. But that’s not worrying Andreas Bernström. And it doesn’t appear to be worrying Rebtel’s 15 million users, either.

You can hear my full interview with Andreas Bernstrom in a special podcast feature if you click here. To receive all our mobile industry podcasts as soon as they’re available, simply subscribe to our RSS feed or find ‘The Fonecast’ in the iTunes store.
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