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Free calls from today: thanks to app by S'pore startup

With nanu, Gentay hopes to end telco dominance for good
Tuesday, August 5, 2014 - 06:00

[SINGAPORE] Nanu, "the world's first and a revolutionary mobile call app that's completely free and works anywhere", is available for download worldwide starting from today, thanks to Singapore-based startup Gentay Communications.

Gentay hopes to end phone bills and telco dominance for good, believing everyone should be able to call his or her loved ones for free anytime, anywhere, its chief executive officer, Martin Nygate, told The Business Times.

Its app provides all mobile calls at no charge, including those made to non-nanu mobile users and even landlines.

This is made possible by its proprietary mobile advertising technology; when a user makes a call via nanu, he will hear a short, unobtrusive audio advertisement instead of a ringtone as he waits for the call to be answered. Through this, nanu is able to make money - from advertisers - which it then uses to pay for the cost of all calls.

Its revenue model, though solely dependent on advertising, is sustainable, said Mr Nygate, because being on mobile allows advertisers to track the geo-location of nanu users and target their advertisements accordingly, making it an attractive model for them.

The startup is now in talks with clients like Nestle, KFC and HTC, and aims to inject 97 per cent of its advertising revenue back into the system in the form of free calls for users.

Unlike existing apps like Skype and Viber, nanu works on any network, including 2G, and not just high bandwidth environments like 3G, 4G or WiFi.

It uses an ultra-low bandwidth technology that allows it to provide quality Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls even on 2G, a network used by about five billion people in rural areas and developing countries.

VoIP calls are calls made over the Internet, and not traditional telephone networks.

"This means no more calls breaking up in poor network environments, making nanu the only viable mobile VoIP service in the 2G market, and the most reliable in the rest of the world," said Mr Nygate.

On launch, nanu's infrastructure and network capacity can support 50 million users, but there is no limit to the number of users that can potentially benefit from free nanu calls. The more users the app has, the more calls will be made through its network; the more revenue it generates from advertisers, the more free minutes it can deliver to more users.

Currently, nanu-to-nanu mobile calls are free anywhere.

Mobile calls to landlines are free for 15 minutes, limited to the first one million users, and can be used in 73 global destinations, among them Singapore, China, India, Russia, the UK and US - accounting for close to half of the world's population covered by cellular networks.

Mobile calls to non-nanu mobile phones are free in nine countries, including Singapore, India, Thailand, Germany and the US.

Said Mr Nygate: "Telcos have been exploiting the cost of calls for years by charging high roaming charges. nanu wants to change this as we believe keeping in touch should be made as easy as possible."

He added that the startup has had discussions with global telcos that have expressed interest in licensing nanu's technology, but it has decided to offer the app free-of-charge directly to users instead.

Still, it expects to work with telcos to ensure a win-win value proposition for all. After all, nanu - a VoIP service like Skype and Viber - requires a telco's infrastructure, mobile data or WiFi to work.

Said Clement Teo, a telco analyst at Forrester: "VoIP calls are cheap; the advertisements they draw can help defray costs ... although advertising revenue will only work for players with a large user base. But to run a proper business- grade call service, the telcos do it better. The network investments they have made, and the conferencing services they offer are of business grade ... small players cannot replicate that."

For StarHub, it is through investments in 4G and 3G network upgrades that its mobile customers can enjoy a 99.97 per cent call success rate and 99.99 per cent service availability, said Michael Chang, assistant vice-president of mobility at StarHub.

"Our customers have the assurance that their mobile calls can reach anyone with a mobile phone, regardless of app ... and have come to expect unmatched crystal-clear phone conversations in HD with reduced background noise," he said.

But Forrester's Mr Teo said an important question should be if telcos can defend against non-business grade users who are switching to free calls.

"Probably not," he said. "The only way to defend is to be very customer-focused, and offer the best experience to them. Are telcos doing that? Somewhat, but more can be done, for example, with better billing or roaming charges."

SingTel, a major telco here, is well aware of the new competition in the digital space. It has identified new growth engines - mobile advertising, big data and mobile-led video service - for which telco assets such as "trusted customer relationships" and "billing platforms" give it a competitive advantage, said a spokeswoman.

"We're also actively partnering other telcos, vendors and research institutes, as well as investing in startups with the potential to disrupt adjacent technologies and their traditional operating models," she added.

It seems like nanu - with its technology and bold mission of ending phone bills as we know them - has readied itself to disrupt the telco industry. It launches on Android first, to be followed by iOS and other operating systems later this year.

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