Start-up of the week

Who’s there? NokNok offers free cellphone calls worldwide

Use this call-forwarding service anywhere, to any device — and soon your Internet connection will be almost free, too

(L. to R.) Idan Bachar and Oren Noy, Noknok's founders (Photo credit: Sheetrit)
(L. to R.) Idan Bachar and Oren Noy, Noknok's founders (Photo credit: Sheetrit)

One blessed offspring of the telephony revolution — the marrying of voice calls to Internet technology — is the shattering of the phone monopolies. There are now a thousand and one ways to make phone calls and avoid high long distance and even local costs.

That being the case, Israel’s NokNok may not seem like a big deal at first glance. But it has a big advantage over other apps that do some of the same things it does: With NokNok, you get to use your own phone number for all calls, local and long-distance, but you still get the low costs associated with IP telephony. Not only that; the company has a plan to democratize Internet access for everyone by making it cheap.

As a result of the telephony revolution, communications costs have never been lower. For example, instead of making a traditional phone call, you could use an application like Skype to call others — on the app’s network for nothing if both users (whether calling from/to a computer and smartphone) have the app installed. For a monthly fee, Skype will also provide you with a special local or international phone number that will let you make calls from the app to regular landline or cellphone lines and receive calls to your device from them as well.

What goes for Skype goes for dozens of its imitators — Viber, Tango, VoxOx, etc.– all of which have their own network. All these apps let you communicate from your device via the network (using wifi) to phones, marrying the Internet telephony world with the “regular” PSTN network. You pay a small fee for each minute you interact with the phone network.

While you can use Skype and these other apps to make local in-country calls between Internet-connected devices and the phone network, it’s usually not worth the effort, since the connection fees between the Internet and the phone network are usually priced the same as local in-network phone calls. The real savings comes in using apps like Skype when calling to or from abroad. Instead of paying ridiculous long-distance cellphone call rates, Skype and its ilk, using various switching and call-forwarding technologies, allow you to make and receive calls at the same rates you would pay for a local in-country call.

In order to interact with the phone system, your smartphone needs to be assigned a regular phone number. Generally, this is not the same phone number people use to reach your device in-country. Those are reserved for phone company to phone company use; Internet to phone connections require the use of “virtual numbers” that work with the specific app you have installed. With Skype, for example, you buy a virtual phone number and install it in the app; the number is registered with phone companies as a call-forwarding number, meaning that when people dial the number, the local phone provider knows to forward it your device. Other apps work the same way.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this system, but it’s still a bit of an inconvenience. Is there no way to take advantage of low-cost IP telephony schemes while using the local phone number everyone knows to call us at, and that appears in the phone directory?

NokNok’s answer to this question is yes — you can have it all. “NokNok is the only system that lets you use your own phone number locally and abroad to make and receive calls, for free,” said Idan Bachar, CEO of NokNok. “You can make calls to an Israeli who is abroad on their cellphone using their Israeli phone number, paying for a local call, no matter where they are. And using the NokNok app, an Israeli abroad can call a number in Israel and not pay at all, if they have an unlimited call package.” The same holds true, he said, for any user from any country visiting anywhere in the world.

NokNok is essentially a call forwarding service — but a very elegant one that never lets its secret out. All the user has to do is dial a number, or pick up the phone if they are on the receiving end; NokNok does the rest. Users with the NokNok app installed on their smartphones have their incoming calls forwarded to, essentially, their own phone number.

“When a user registers with NokNok, we have the phone company forward the call to a virtual phone number assigned to the user, but that number is registered on our servers,” said Bachar. “The call is then forwarded via the Internet to the NokNok user, ringing as it would on the regular network, and even showing the caller ID information of the caller — the only Internet telephony app to have this feature on the iPhone.

“All of this is transparent to the caller and recipient,” said Bachar. “As far as the callers are concerned, they are making a regular phone call to a regular in-country cellphone number, and the recipient, if they have NokNok installed and active, receives the call as a regular call as well.”

Another advantage of NokNok, said Bachar, is that it works everywhere and anywhere; since the call is being routed via the Internet and the caller is dialing a local number, it doesn’t matter where users are, as long as they have Internet access. This, Bachar said, is a big plus for users as well, since virtual numbers used by Skype and the others can only be used in one country at a time.

For the system to work on the receiver end, the user has to have wifi access — and as part of the company’s efforts to provide a complete telephony solution, said Bachar, NokNok is going into the Internet business as well. “In the coming months we are going to roll out a very low-cost pay-as-you-go Internet connection service, because there really is no justification for the ridiculously high prices the cellphone companies charge for their Internet connection packages abroad.”

It’s a problem that plagues not only Israelis who go abroad; cellphone companies all around the world charge a hefty fee for very limited Internet connection packages for their customers abroad. What’s strange about that, said Bachar, is that those same users are getting excellent rates for blazing-fast, unlimited Internet connection charges at home, as are residents of the country those users are visiting.

“Those traveling abroad are getting ripped off because they are ‘temporary’ customers who don’t have long-term contracts with local service providers, but actually the connection costs for the Internet service providers are the same no matter who is connecting,” said Bachar. “We intend to make deals with Internet service providers in various countries to buy bandwidth at low, resident-friendly prices, and sell them at the same low cost to NokNok customers.”

But if the model NokNok has set up for phone calls holds true for the Internet connection, users may not even have to pay for their wifi abroad. NokNok, like Skype and company, allows users to make phone calls to their home countries (or anywhere) using their app, but unlike the others, NokNok does not (at least for now) charge for those calls. “Calls are made using credits, called ‘Noks,’ and the only way you can earn Noks is by encouraging other people to use the app,” said Bachar.

This, too, is not a new idea — there have been many apps that have provided rewards for encouraging members to recruit friends and acquaintances — but the exclusion of purchase as a means to acquiring calling credits speaks to Bachar’s determination to make NokNok the next big app for IP telephony, and possibly Internet connection as well.

“We are aiming to provide, for the first time, a complete communications solution for all needs, using a single app, making it as easy and transparent to users as possible,” said Bachar. “As people get to know us and see what we are offering versus the competition, I believe they are going to switch to NokNok.”

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