Convenient international mobile phone calls and pre-paid topping up: Rebtel and Sendly


Doing ethnographic media research on mobile phones in an urban sub-Saharan African context, I am usually on the lookout for opportunities on how to easiest and most conveniently stay in touch with people when I am not in Africa physically myself. I have now recently stumbled across such an app – it is called Rebtel and provided by a Swedish company. 

Since access to mobile phones is on the rise in many African countries since about a decade or so, the availability of mobile internet has also increased drastically, so it is more or less possible to reach people via Skype, Facebook (Messenger), WhatsApp, or the like, at a very low or no fare at all. However, internet connections are not always reliable, even in urban settings (let alone suburban locations), data plans can be unaffordable for people (so, you cannot be in touch with them via the apps as mentioned above), or, simply put, widespread feature phones or low end smart phones do technologically not support many of these apps.

A great VoIP-app called Rebtel (available for iOS and Android platforms) allows you to make extremely cheap international calls. While calling rates vary (at times considerably) from country to country and depending on whether you call a landline or mobile phone (SMS are also possible, of course) you can call, for instance, to a Kenyan mobile phone for as little as 0.062 €/min or to a Ugandan cellular for 0.229 €/min (you can check up rates for different countries here). Rebtel-to-Rebtel calls and SMS are free of charge. However, since the app uses either the mobile internet or local minutes to connect your call, you will be charged for these at your usual rate, additionally to the Rebtel international calling fare. The latter, again, and that is a huge advantage, allows you to make use of the service even when you do not have a mobile data connection available.

A nice feature is that the app actually shows you how much you will have to pay per minute or SMS for each assigned contact/number, before you call. It can import numbers from you phone registry. Another great general feature is that you do not need to have the app, a smart phone or even a mobile phone. You can even use your landline or a very simple mobile phone to make calls. What Rebtel does here is to, more or less, permanently assign a specific Rebtel-phone number to the international number of your conversational partner. In order to benefit from Rebtel’s calling rates you will, then, use this Rebtel number to call the person you would like to speak to – more information on how this works here.



To complement the story, while talking about sub-Saharan African mobile phone markets that are often overly pre-paid dominated: there is another app, done by the same company, called Sendly. Sendly basically allows you to top up any international pre-paid number with a certain amount of money (airtime). Sending airtime from one phone (person) to another is common practice in many places, where mobile phone usage is pre-paid dominated. However, when not being in the same country as the airtime-recipient, it is usually not very easy to help out a friend or family member. Sendly fills that gap.

The Rebtel app comes with a little feature that works in a similar manner: When writing a SMS to an international mobile phone number that potentially has no credit/airtime (and is not a Rebtel user, otherwise, they could write back for free Rebtel-to-Rebtel, anyway) one has the option to sort of invite the conversational partner to respond to the SMS by paying the SMS-fee in advance when sending ones own SMS.

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