Voxera cofounder Amr El Gebaly arrived home after a holiday with his wife to a menu-like list of roaming charges on his phone bill.
That bill shock turned into a device, launched via a Kickstarter campaign in February, which promises to end all roaming charges for phone calls and SMSs.
“The user puts his or her SIM card into the device, connects it to Internet, leaves it at home and travels. Then, he or she needs to download the Voxera application, find any stable wifi connection and it’s done,” El Gebaly told Wamda. “The application configures automatically and connects to the user’s SIM card.”
“It is like you never travelled. It makes your phone still visible on your local GSM network which means you send and receive calls with your current local fees.”
The Kickstarter campaign clearly captured the imagination of Egyptians, hitting its $20,000 target in five days. This isn’t an insignificant feat for a country whose currency was worth just over 18 Egyptian pounds to the dollar at the time.
Backers, especially Egyptians travelling a lot for business and pleasure or Egyptians living abroad, donated in the hopes of receiving the device in June.
Voxera uses a Gigsky world data SIM card, providing 3G/4G Internet in 90 countries.
Getting around VOIP bans
The key market for Voxera may well not be frequent fliers. El Gebaly said their main competitors were Skype and other VOIP services - both easily accessible to anyone with the same WIFI connection Voxera’s device would use.
The market could in fact be countries with VOIP restrictions - effectively much of the Middle East, Carribean and Asia.
“Countries where all VOIP services like Whatsapp audio calls, Skype and similar calling options are prohibited such as KSA and UAE," he said, while Wamda covered the introduction of bans in Morocco and Egypt here and here.
Crowd Analyzer CEO Ahmed Saad said he spent about $2,000 in roaming charges last year and can’t get everyone he needs to speak to use Skype - for his mother it’s the technology factor, for others it’s that the service just doesn’t work over 3G in Egypt.
“If I get a local mobile SIM wherever I go, it is more charges for me plus the international call charges for anyone calling me,” he said. “Not everyone is Skype- or Whatsapp-friendly when it comes to voice calls."
Drama, drama, drama…
Voxera’s startup story was progressing normally until El Gebaly pitched the product on local television show Hona Al Shabab, modelled on the infamous ‘Shark Tank’ format.
The jury dismissed the idea, with former Careem Egypt managing director Wael El Fakharany asking why a person would use this when they could instead use Skype or other VOIP services that are available from any phone.
The biggest drawback of the product, in the view of the jury, was the legality: Egypt bans using the internet for making calls, otherwise known as ‘proxy calls facilitating’.
“In America and Europe it's totally legal, here in Egypt it's not illegal but it's not legal either, we don't have a law against it because there was never a precedent calling for this law,” El Gebaly told Wamda.
The drama erupted on March 22 as audiences online and offline felt the jury wasn’t welcoming enough and was too judgmental, leading to El Fakharany to apologize after the show on the channel’s Facebook page for having misunderstood the project’s purpose and technology.
Amr is resolute, however, and have received some interest from potential investors and clients - mainly Egyptians - in the US and UK after the show aired.
“I don’t think there is bad beef or a problem with the panel, I actually failed another competition in Jordan one day after taping that episode. Failure is a part of success, I believe.”