U.K. Startup Swytch Is Building An App To Open Up The ‘Burner’ Phone Number Market

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The telco industry has resisted change for years. That anti-innovation attitude, coupled with the rise of smartphones and fast data networks, provided ample opportunities for over-the-top startups to circumvent moribund and expensive telco offerings with VoIP and messaging apps that were both less expensive and more feature rich.

No surprise, then, that OTT messaging apps have blown up. And things are only going to get more moveable on the phone front as telcos start to wake up to the need to sanction their own disruption where they would previously have dug their heels in. Really they’re playing catch up now.

Case in point, U.K. startup Swytch — founded in April this year — is bootstrapping a cloud based mobile network and dialer app that will let you use multiple phone numbers on a single SIM, so doing away with the hassle of juggling multiple physical SIM cards. (Which in turn has led to phone makers offering devices with dual SIM slots to make SIM switching easier — albeit, that’s only good for two numbers. And is mainly a feature of lower cost devices targeting emerging markets.)

The Swytch app will support the use of different phone numbers on the same SIM so the user can have what amounts to multiple phone lines for incoming and outgoing calls on a single device. It will also — at a later date next year — offer additional call management features such as call forwarding or blocking for individual numbers.

“Swytch provides you with additional numbers on your existing phone. So you don’t change your phone, you don’t change your SIM card, you don’t change your network operator, we can add lots of numbers on top of that that you can make and receive calls on, and texts. And they’re all live at the same time,” says co-founder Chris Michael.

“The big use case, obviously, is business people, so breaking out business and personal communications,” he added. “But because of the nature of not having a contract or a commitment with your number we’re opening up the temporary number market.”

Another target here is offering international customers the ability to buy U.K. numbers they can use in their home country to circumvent roaming fees.

The startup was showing off its as yet unreleased app at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe’s startup alley last week. They’re working to a launch date of the end January at the moment. The service will be piggybacking on the mobile network of an existing U.K. carrier, much like an MVNO, although they’re not disclosing which network will be their partner at this point (but obviously the service will work across all networks).

“We will work on iOS and Android. And it will also work on tablets as well so, in effect, you can take an iPad and turn it into an iPhone because the only difference between an iPhone and an iPad is that you can make and receive calls and text messages… on the phone. And we can do that now on an iPad as well,” Michael added.

“The vision is that you have one app, where you have any number, from anywhere in the world — as many as you like — on a short term basis. Because, our U.K. numbers, there’s no contract on them at all.”

So, in other words, if you’re — say — in the process of trying to buy a house and need to register a phone number with lots of estate agents you could use a ‘burner’ number for the weeks/months of your search. And then stop taking any calls on it once you’re done. Which sounds like bliss.

Swytch is using recycled numbers to power the service — which are also used for the pay-as-you-go mobile market. In the same way as happens with PAYG Michael explained it will quarantine numbers to check they’re not getting calls and texts before putting them back into circulation (albeit, some PAYG numbers clearly aren’t very well quarantined so it will be interesting to see how effective that quarantining process is).

Usage of Swytch numbers will then come out of the user’s bundled minutes and texts, i.e. with their existing carrier. Although there’s also a small added cost (see below) to using their numbers.

Swytch is looking to replicate its service with numbers abroad and Michael said it’s currently speaking with network operators in the U.S. and Europe who are interested in giving it numbers to expand the service scope — so, for example, a U.K. Swytch user could buy a U.S. number.

“There’s a very big pain point here for people. They get it very, very, very quickly. Even if they’re not a business user,” he said.

“If you frequent eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist, Match.com, anywhere where you have a transaction with somebody you really don’t know very well and you don’t want to give them something that’s so personal as your mobile number you can switch on a temporary number for a week, give it to them and when you’ve finished that you can switch it off as well.”

Obviously that ability cuts both ways. So people being given a mobile number thinking they now have a permanent line in to someone else’s mobile device may well get a nasty shock when they find the number wasn’t so permanent after all. Although that can happen anyway if someone is using a secondary SIM that they discard.

Another interesting potential security consequence from making temporarily mobile numbers more accessible is that increasingly mobile apps and digital services are using mobile phone numbers to authenticate the identity of someone signing up to their service — but if a burner number can be used, that arguably makes it easier for people to create fake accounts to spam or scam others.

Michael said to sign up to Swytch someone has to register a “legitimate mobile number”, as well as provide an email address. He also points to the fact it’s a paid service as a factor that will be off-putting to scammers.

“There’s a payment mechanism involved. Our numbers aren’t free so there’s even more anonymity in a pay as you go phone because I can buy a SIM card and buy scratch vouchers and top up without giving any network any details about myself. Whereas with us we’re using iOS for in-app billing, and we’re using a credit card provider for Android billing. There is a number of tracking [measures],” he noted.

There are some services which already offer multiple phone numbers per SIM in the U.S. but the U.K. market has not yet been opened up in this way. Michael, who has worked in the mobile industry for the past 12 years, said it’s been a pretty long road to getting telcos to buy in to the idea.

“I was banging on doors for two and a half years trying to get numbers,” he said. “It wasn’t until I spoke with the right network operator but also the right person that really understood that the market’s going OTT. Whether they like it or not.”

“They did the same with Skype when Skype first came out and then they embraced it. The same with WhatsApp and then they embraced it. We’ve been very careful to make sure the relationship we’ve got with our network operator, they’re very clear on what they want from it. That we can achieve something that’s beneficial for them, as well as for us,” he added.

The big advantage Swytch is offering domestic carriers is the opening up of the temporary market number — ergo, expanding their potential customer base to overseas mobile users, for example.

Average voice call revenue per user has been declining for years so anything which appears to offer a route to rekindle voice growth domestically — and indeed expand the pie by opening up to overseas users — is going to look attractive to an open-minded carrier.

“Where we really open up the market for a network operator is this temporary number market where they don’t have a solution for that,” said Michael. “Pay as you go is still very, very expensive for these solutions. But also we are able to sell a U.K. mobile to anybody anywhere in the world.

“So if I’m a Spanish manufacturer and I have distributors in the U.K. I can give my sales staff a U.K. mobile number in Spain which they can distribute and then people calling them don’t even know they’re abroad necessarily, don’t pay any roaming charges, and vice versa. When my staff call or text out they’re not paying any roaming charges either.”

In terms of pricing, he said Swytch will be free for a week for one number with £1 worth of credit so a user can trial the service. After that the cost per number will be around £1 per week per number. Swytch will also charge for outgoing calls, layering on top of your existing operator services. The pricing for U.K. calls will be around 1.5p per minute for a landline call, 3.5p for a mobile, 4p for a text — on top of whatever you’re paying your carrier.

“Internationally it’s going to be just as competitive as Skype,” he added. “We can scale what we do here in the U.S. and any other country so we are actively seeking network operators for these countries. And building out the features and the functions further down the line to really differentiate ourselves from any network operator anywhere in the world.

“We are already talking with manufacturers, especially Android manufacturers, about pre-loading our app on their devices. It differentiates their offering to others.”

Android’s customizability would allow for Swytch to be used as default dialer on the phone. Whereas on iOS the user has to fire up the app in order to make outgoing Swytch line calls.

On both platforms the dialer app integrates with the user’s phone book so it can correctly identify any saved contacts to ID who’s calling and so on.

Some screenshots of the forthcoming app are shown below:

  1. swytch-lines

  2. swytch-messages

  3. swytch-call-log

  4. swytch-numbers

  5. swytch