Phones for rent stateside


29 Apr 2003

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For the first time, Irish J1 visa-toting students will be able to equip themselves with mobile phones for the summer when they enter the US.

Every year up to 10,000 Irish college students travel to the US on a J1 visa to work in a variety of jobs ranging from menial to high powered. Some go to work, others go for the craic, but for their families back home, prospective landlords, employers and for the students themselves, keeping in touch as well as having a phone number for work and accommodation purposes is often a frustrating exercise for all concerned. Most of the present batch of students grew up with mobile phones, but on arrival in the US they discover that their GSM phones are useless in a land where contrasting mobile phone networks and expensive pricing systems are the norm.

A new company called Fonepool.com has been established to provide Irish J1 student workers with a mobile phone that will work in the US for the duration of their stay. The company has struck up an exclusive deal with AT&T Wireless to provide phones based on the TDMA (time division multiple access) standard to J1 students planning to work in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Former internet entrepreneur John Dennehy and ex-Usit product development manager Colman Lydon established Fonepool.com after several months of researching the US market, which resulted in a deal with AT&T Wireless and the establishment of a warehouse in New York where they will store the phones and collect them when the students return to Ireland.

Dennehy reasons that each year between 8,000 and 10,000 Irish J1 visa holders travel to the US and on average earn approximately €2,500 over the course of a 12-week period. “That’s a €25m market,” he says.

The service will work in such a way that students will order a mobile phone over Fonepool.com and will collect their mobile phone on arrival in the US. A typical summer package would cost €75, with €25 free call credit. When the students are about to return to Ireland, they simply post the mobile phone back to Fonepool.com’s New York warehouse and in turn will be reimbursed with a €10 deposit fee.

“Having a mobile in the US will prove invaluable to students who are used to having a mobile in Europe insofar as helping them to secure accommodation and finding jobs,” Dennehy reasons. “As well as this, TDMA phones allow students to send and receive emails, which would prove ideal for concerned friends and family hoping to know how the person is doing in America at any time.”

At present, the US market is only cottoning on to the pre-paid billing model and AT&T Wireless is the only stateside mobile operator that doesn’t charge users for receiving email and text messages.

Lydon explains that while the company will be targeting the Irish market this summer, it will be prepared to target Australian, New Zealand and South African students that will be travelling to the US during the autumn and winter months, making the operation a year-round venture.

Dennehy adds that Fonepool.com has secured grant aid from Enterprise Ireland to develop value-add billing software that will allow students and their parents to top up the TDMA phones’ call credit via the internet through credit card payments.

The company launched the service in recent weeks with a direct mail campaign targeting 60pc of this year’s J1 visa recipients.

Dennehy explains that as well as targeting students on a global basis, the company is examining a business-to-business service for executives travelling to and from the US, whereby, for example, an Irish executive travelling to New York that wants to be contactable by mobile can order a phone over the internet and collect it on arrival at a designated part of the airport. As well as this, for US businesspeople travelling into Ireland Fonepool.com will provide executives who order on the website with GSM phones on their arrival at Dublin, Shannon or Cork and the company is examining plans also for airports in the UK.

“Right now we are focusing on the student market, so our plans for attacking the corporate market are some way off. We are in the process of assessing business demand for the service and coming up with value-added services we can add on top.

“We’ve been basically researching the US market since November,” Dennehy continues, “testing various network providers and phones to make sure that when students arrive in New York, Boston or San Franscisco their phones will work. Being contactable will be a huge relief to their families as well as giving the students greater flexibility on the ground when looking for jobs or accommodation.

“The difference with the US TDMA phones is that students will be able to send and receive emails in the same way as they can send text messages on GSM phones. The AT&T Wireless service is also one of the few network providers in the US that doesn’t charge the handset owner for receiving text messages or emails,” Dennehy concludes.

By John Kennedy