China Mobile International offers free app to appeal to overseas Chinese callers

MONTREAL – The world’s biggest wireless carrier is looking for customers in Canada, but not with its cellphone service.

Instead, China Mobile is banking on a free mobile app to appeal to Chinese ex-pats and businesses.

China Mobile’s international division has launched the app, Jego, to expand globally as it competes for customers with Microsoft’s Skype as well as free voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) apps, said John Jiang, chief technology officer at China Mobile International.

The Jego app gives iPhone and Android smartphone users a China-based phone number, free incoming calls and low-cost calling plans.

“The main goal is keeping and getting new customers,” Jiang said in an interview from Hong Kong. “We’ll also get additional revenue from international calls.”

VoIP apps are becoming more popular with consumers as a way to save money on long-distance calls and roaming charges on their monthly cellphone bills.

China Mobile recently reported lower quarterly earnings and has lost revenue to social messaging apps like WeChat and SMS texting. However, the state-owned telecom still has more than 740 million wireless customers, making it the world’s largest carrier.

Jiang said offering a calling and texting app is easier than going through the lengthy and expensive process of building a network and selling wireless services in foreign countries.

“This is our first step to get international coverage.”

Jiang estimated there are more than 1.3 million Chinese living in Canada and many new Chinese immigrants keep their China Mobile phones, but have to pay roaming charges to call home, he said.

For businesses, Jiang said the advantage is that the app gives them a Chinese caller ID instead of showing a Canadian caller ID, or possibly no caller-ID since China sometimes blocks who is calling.

“Now people can call them back and they can show a local presence. You can have a closer business relationship,” Jiang said.

The Canada-China Business Council isn’t totally convinced, saying Skype and messaging service WeChat are available to connect with China.

“My guess is that this China Mobile app is just yet another in an increasing number of communications tools,” said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the council, considered the voice of the Canadian business community on issues affecting Sino-Canadian trade and investment.

Calling China is “way down” on the list of barriers for Canada’s small- and medium-sized businesses, she said, adding that understanding the Chinese business culture can more of a challenge.

Kutulakos said there could be a “minor league” benefit in using the app, but not a “huge” one.

Telus executive Brent Johnston said such apps are considered a plus because they encourage consumers to adopt data and voice plans.

“The overwhelming growth and drive in smartphone adoption actually prompts the adoption of these types of apps — BBM, What’s App, Skype, etc,” said Johnston, vice-president of mobility solutions.

“In addition, they drive data plan adoption, and the addition of data to new voice and data plans.”

So far, North America, including Canada, and South East Asia are among the top markets for downloading Jego, China Mobile International said.

Telecom analyst Troy Crandall said the cost of offering such an app is minimal, adding it’s far more expensive to put up cellphone towers.

He also said wireless carriers are usually the beneficiaries of these apps.

“It just whets your appetite and gets you into the data side,” said Crandall, of Montreal investment firm MacDougall, MacDougall and MacTier.