With recent multiplication of cloud telecom provider like Twilio, Plivo, Tropo, Nexmo, TelAPI, Apifon…. and many more popping out every day, I had this idea about how easy it should be now to build a calling card solution based completely in the cloud and on one of the provider’s rich API. A weekend or so of coding, thought I and it should be ready for production! But little did I know about what it takes to create something as simple as a calling card service.
A few years ago those calling card companies would require pretty hefty investments, delivering quite subpar quality of calls to some countries. Of course the world is all-IP now and soon will get rid of PTSN at all, but until then people still call other countries using regular telephone.
The state of VOIP today is changing
Nowdays, Plivo for instance, can take care of all your voice traffic between SIP gateways and offers easy-to-use Voice-XML to manipulate calls. This leaves you with no need to buy FreeSWITCH / Asterisk servers, pay for traffic and hire tech support people to monitor and fix issues as they arise. You can outsource this to Plivo and just pay for voice traffic at $0.004 per minute. Deploy your call controlling / billing / web application on the cloud with appfog and you are all set.
You might ask me, why would I even bother to think about something like this, citing ease of Google Voice and Skype. Well, those are data-dependent, and without 3G/4G or WiFi you are not going to be able to call. And when you roaming, data fees are HUGE!
Look, I have this bright idea of solving people’s problem
My idea here was – what if your call can be initiated by the text message you send to a certain number? A system then could call you back and connect to the other party, no matter local or international. This gets even more interesting when you travel overseas – at times when you are in the hotel and need to call home or maybe make a few calls around the globe and don’t want to pay hotel call rates. Here is when you can use this callback service to dial you directly into your room, using text-to-speech functionality asking reception to connect this call to your room. Once you pick up and authenticate – there is an IVR system available to allow you to make outgoing calls. So instead of you calling the access number, it calls you.
Sounds like a great idea, so how do I get started?
First step is to buy a phone number with one of the above providers to accept text messages and make calls. While those are priced differently, the cheapest here would be Plivo charging you $ 0.80 per month. Next step is writing code which handles calls with API and XML requests, testing and deployment.
Your own choice for voice termination
When I first started thinking about this idea, I had an account with Twilio, but their international rates are absurdly high for some of the destinations (Ukraine and Russia in my case). Plivo on the other hand has low prices, but there is a latency and their voice quality for of the countries I dialed to is not great. One should also note about rounding – did you know, that your calling card provider most likely rounds your calls to one minute, even though they buy voice trafic at 6 second increments?
So I went shopping for a VOIP provider which would offer great rates and rounds calls to something less than a minute – and this is how FlowRoute came into the picture. After reading reviews online, I decided to go with these guys and opened up an account. Call quality was pleasantly great and rates did add up to my whole satisfaction.
This was fun, until I read fineprint
There is one thing though, which made it all kinda lose sense in terms of how much bureaucracy is involved in it.
Calling card business itself is not that much profitable margin-wise, and therefore some of the companies went as far as adding a number of “maintenance fees”, “weekly surcharges”, “hang-up fees” and so on. This has been taken to an absurd by some, and as a result people complained, and FCC acted on it. To prevent any future incidents like this, all calling card companies, VOIP resellers and operators are now treated as telecom providers and should follow up a certain list of regulations, and also support telecom industry by making contributions to a USF (Universal Service Fund). In other words, you will be filing a load of paperwork while still making penny on a dollar.
And this completely shelves the idea of a “pocket calling card company”… Oh well, at least I learned a lot, and wrote this post.