26. August 2013–
International travel has become easier (and cheaper) than ever – flights can go for under €50, accommodation platforms, such as CouchSurfing, offer more affordable places to stay and travel apps provide tourists with cheaper dining options. But one part of travelling has remained stubbornly expensive despite the developments in other areas: mobile data roaming. While the European Commission is currently working on reducing these costs across the EU, Homayun Zahidi, founder and CEO of CrowdRoaming, wants to one-up them by offering users 100 per cent free internet access while overseas.
His startup brings the sharing economy to mobile roaming by letting locals share their WiFi with travellers, and vice versa, when they themselves go overseas. Recently launched and currently only available for Android, it still needs to amass a larger user base for it to be successful.
We caught up with him to find out how they're dealing with privacy woes and how CrowdRoaming hopes to capitalise on the sharing economy...
Hi Homayun, can you tell us a bit about CrowdRoaming?
CrowdRoaming is a young Dutch company founded in 2012, we've developed technology that lets people make a small piece of their mobile data bundle – which they don't need – available for other CrowdRoamers. This allows the unused parts of a data bundle to be redistributed, instead of just disappearing at the end of each month.
Users with unlimited data just download the free app, which runs in the background and automatically lets nearby travellers access locals’ WiFi systems. In return, when these travellers get back home, they themselves open their WiFi to visiting users.
How did you come across your idea?
It may sound like a cliché, but the idea of CrowdRoaming started with paper and pencil at the kitchen table in a small town in the Netherlands. What I'm solving is a problem we've all run into during our holidays abroad – namely, staggering roaming costs. I had this vision of a crowd of people, all busy with their smartphones browsing, using Facebook, sending emails and messages – and between all of them stood one single foreigner raising up his arms into the air yelling ‘Why can’t I do the same?!’
I thought the solution to this problem was easy: when you are abroad without an internet connection, why not use the data a local person has already paid for? It almost always goes to waste the next month anyway as phone companies need to sell new quotas. So the idea of CrowdRoaming was born and now that we made a soft launch, I feel a mix of happiness and excitement. After so many hours of development and testing, we are eager to see how people will put our technology to use.
Who are the founders and how did you find each other?
We have five founders: myself, Tom Thomas, Shahram Bahraini, Dick Nijland and Harry Kramp. We all have different backgrounds – I have a background in software development and IT management, Tom in software development, Shahram in finance, Dick in operations and Harry has an impressive track-record in marketing/communications.
What makes you different from everyone else?
With this technology, smartphones are able to recognise each other, connect with each other and exchange information without the intervention of a mobile operator. The only condition is that these devices have to be located near one another – up to 50m away.
How many users do you have?
The app has been downloaded 8,000 times, at the moment it's only available in the EU. With our next update we'll make the app available worldwide.
What is your business model? And how big is the market potential?
CrowdRoaming is not our primary business model. We want to make this technology available to partners who want to create practical applications for it. We also have other applications on the roadmap, we'll bring them to the market later this year.
Who is financing you?
We've secured private funding but at the moment we cannot disclose who funds us.
Is there something you're missing?
We are looking for ways to make the redistribution of unused data capacity in a more structured manner. Also, we're looking for a distribution partner for our technology as well as additional funding to expand and improve our technology.
Any advice you'd give fellow startups?
Stay focused in the short-term, but also continuously evaluate the long-term vision.
Where will you be in a year's time?
In a year's time we will have expanded our peer-to-peer technology to incorporate any device (mobile or fixed) into this model. We want to make it easy for devices and apps to peer-up with CrowdRoaming.
How are you getting around users' privacy concerns?
In the development of this app, a lot of attention has been paid to privacy. So, for example, we are using data encryption in the app to make sure people can only see that they are connected with someone, but not with whom. All data is encrypted so it's highly protected.