International calling is a complete mess. It’s difficult, expensive, and often unsatisfactory.
Tech savvy folks try to use apps like Skype, Viber, Tango, and WhatsApp to call their loved ones, but more often than not, the connection is bad and calls get dropped. If you happen to have older relatives who don’t own smartphones, you’re also out of luck. Many apps offer international calls to landlines, but the prices are often absurdly high. And you can always try old-school calling cards, too — which offer a more reliable signal and the ability to call both smartphones and landlines — but they will cost you a pretty penny.
Enter Rebtel, a Swedish company that has offered international calling packages for a decade now. The company’s founders, CEO Magnus Larsson and CMO Fredrik Wrahme, both came from the telecom industry and recognized the need for stable, fairly-priced international calling.
Their new service, named ‘Rebel Calling,’ hopes to finally deliver on that promise. It offers free unlimited international phone calls for a year, and $1 a month after that. Unlike Viber, Skype, Tango, and other competitors’ apps, it doesn’t route calls over Wi-Fi either, which means you should get a more stable connection, sometimes. As Larsson puts it, you get “the stability of the traditional GSM telco connection, but from a mostly free service.” And since the calls are unlimited, you don’t have to worry about running out of minutes mid phone call.
“We come from an industry that’s been overpricing the customer for such a long time,” Larsson told Digital Trends. “The margins are incredible, and when you talk about international calling, it’s even worse.”
Rebtel’s Head of Product Jonathan Göransson told us that the telecom industry views international calls as a “cash cow,” raking in up to 80 percent in margins. “They are charging too much,” he explained, and Rebtel’s goal is to offer customers a fair price. Even at $1-a-month, it’s able to turn a profit because its method of connecting calls is actually cheaper than traditional methods. Larsson is quick to point out that Rebtel doesn’t just want to offer a cheaper service, but a better one.
“There are so many apps that don’t work — they always drop the call — and calling cards are a scam, actually. They charge you all these hidden fees. So, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we do international calling in a much better way?'”
“Spotify revolutionized the music industry, Skype revolutionized peer to peer video calling, so we want to be the next big thing,” Wrahme added. “We want to crack international calling the way it should be cracked. Viber and Skype haven’t really nailed it. We want to be the Skype and Viber that actually works.”
Here’s how it works
Rebel Calling connects both users by making local calls on your standard carrier’s network. Since Rebtel sets it up as a local phone call, you’ll be charged the same rate you’d pay for a normal phone call to someone local. Rebtel routes the call as close to you as possible, either in your state, or sometimes a nearby city. It also points out that in the United States, nearly 100 percent of smartphone owners have unlimited talk minutes, and even if you don’t, an international Rebel call will only cost about $0.04 per minute, which is 80 to 90 percent cheaper than what most carriers charge for international calls. Wi-Fi VoIP calling is also available, if you want to use it.
There’s one catch: You and the person you’re calling both have to have the iOS or Android app. However, if you do have a landline-locked relative without a smartphone, you can buy minutes from Rebtel to call that person.
There’s no need for an Internet connection with Rebel Calling, and you won’t have to use up your precious data to make calls, either.
“You get a more fair and transparent product,” Wrahme told us. “People come to the U.S. and they need to connect back home. You take that calling card — it even hangs next to the lottery cards — It says $10 on it, but on the back, it has all these extra fees: a call fee, a hangup fee, you name it. You never get the full $10 of calling. And that’s catering to people who are more low income, which is unfair and inconvenient.”
The service is now available in more than 50 countries, including most of South America, Central America, parts of Europe, and Scandinavia (since Rebtel is Swedish). If English isn’t your first language, you can get the app in Spanish or French, too. The company plans to add more languages and currencies to its app in the future to become truly global.
A simple app with Scandinavian flair
The app itself is fairly easy to navigate. Wrahme told us that it takes cues from Nordic design and minimalism — concepts anyone who’s ever been to Ikea will quickly recognize. And on a personal note, the red and white menus instantly had me recalling years of Swedish Christmases with my grandmother. Even the icon is simple and fun: It’s a white upside down R that stands for “rebel.”
Inside the app on the bottom the screen, there are four choices: an address book icon, an icon that looks like a keypad for dialing a number manually, a home button where all your recent contacts show up, and the settings menu.
After you’ve entered numbers in Rebel Calling, they’ll be there waiting for you on the home page of the app next time you boot it up, which Rebtel calls the “Living Room.” In the center of each colorful rectangle, you’ll see your contact’s picture and their name with an arc overhead. The arc represents the dome of the sky above your contact’s head, and you’ll see either a sun in the sky or a moon to let you know if it’s day or night where your contact lives. The local time, their number, and whether or not they have Rebel calling shows up right there, too.
To place a call, simply swipe on a contact with Rebel Calling and Rebtel will connect you. If it’s a landline, the call will automatically use your purchased minutes. That’s about it. When Larsson and Wrahme came to our New York office and demoed Rebel Calling with a colleague in Sweden, everything went smoothly. The call connected immediately and the signal was clear. Larsson says that the call quality might even be better with Rebtel than it would be with your own carrier if you buy international calling, because carriers can route calls through cheaper lines, which can result in poor sound and stability.
“With our system, we control the quality with our own network,” Larsson explained. “We’re taking away those borders.”