Cheaper phone calls overseas with gadget

Qongle works as a forwarding device, routing calls and SMS messages over the Internet to the travelling smartphone it is paired with.
Qongle works as a forwarding device, routing calls and SMS messages over the Internet to the travelling smartphone it is paired with.PHOTO: IRENE THAM AND NINETEEN69

Local start-up's forwarding device Qongle lets users avoid auto-roaming, call charges

A local start-up claims to have found a cheaper way for mobile users to stay connected while overseas.

Nineteen69 promises travellers that with its device, they will not have to pay expensive roaming fees, or settle for inconvenient workarounds.

Dubbed Qongle, the device lets travellers make or receive calls from any Singapore number without subscribing to auto-roaming, which costs about $10 a month.

Qongle users also avoid paying overseas call charges that range from 35 cents to $6 a minute, depending on the destination - on top of the auto-roaming subscription.

Qongle's main draw is its roaming fee-free home connect feature, and its logo bears the outline of E.T. from the 1982 sci-fi movie, which featured an alien with the catchphrase "phone home".

Qongle creator Stuart Tan said the idea came to him two years ago when he missed an important call from his mother while travelling.

"I did not pick up her call to save on roaming charges, but that turned out to be a bad decision," said the 47-year-old, though he did not elaborate further.

Nineteen69 was set up in April last year, with the objective of bringing down the costs of roaming. Mr Tan invested $300,000 in the company.

Qongle will be on sale here in June for US$109 (S$150). Mr Tan is in talks with two telcos and a major local information technology retail chain to distribute the device, but he declined to name the parties.

Qongle works as a forwarding device, routing calls and SMS messages over the Internet to the travelling smartphone it is paired with.

Users download the Qongle application on their smartphone for making calls while overseas and for pairing with the Qongle hardware.

Before travelling, users must insert their Singapore SIM card into the Qongle device, which is plugged to a power source at home. It can be connected to the home Wi-Fi network to save on mobile data use.

Once overseas, users must buy a prepaid data SIM card and insert it into the smartphone. The Qongle app in the phone routes calls and SMS messages to and from Singapore over the phone's 4G or Wi-Fi connection. Users pay local data charges for calls with Singapore numbers. If the phone is connected to Wi-Fi, the call is free.

Normally, frequent travellers save on roaming fees by buying a prepaid data SIM card in their destination country. But the people they message or call see a foreign number, which may not be convenient.

With Qongle, however, users retain their Singapore number despite using a foreign SIM card.

Mr Tan has spent the last two decades working for mobile tech firms.

Most notably, he was vice-president of operations at defunct start- up Fusion Garage, which launched its JooJoo tablet in March 2010, a week before the first Apple iPad was released. The firm folded in January 2012 after it ran out of money.

When asked how Qongle could succeed when the JooJoo tablet could not, Mr Tan said: "Qongle is solving an existing problem, whereas JooJoo was blue-sky technology."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Cheaper phone calls overseas with gadget'. Print Edition | Subscribe