Smartphone rentals sidestep data roaming fees

14 Mar 2013

ITEM [via SpringWise]: Why buy a local prepaid SIM when you’re traveling overseas when you can rent an entire smartphone?

That’s the premise behind Handy, a service offered in Hong Kong and Singapore by HK start-up Tink Labs.

Handy – which launched in Hong Kong last September and expanded to Singapore a couple of months ago – offers visitors in both cities a Samsung Galaxy Note or Google Nexus bundled with unlimited calls and 3G connectivity.

Hong Kong visitors pay HK$68 ($8.75) a day, while Singapore visitors pay S$12 a day ($9.60). The price difference is the result of local partnerships with operators in each city.

Either way, users get a lot of bang for their buck. For a start, the unlimited voice package includes international calls (although that’s currently limited to 25 specific countries, including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and a number of European countries). Also, the unlimited data connectivity includes tethering, which means no searching around for Wi-Fi hot spots for your laptop.

In addition, the phones come pre-loaded with apps like Skype, Facebook, public transportation planners, tourist info and even discounts for popular local attractions (at least in Hong Kong – the Handy Singapore is still working with local merchants to set up special offers via the service, which are planned to become available next month). Users have the option to download their own apps as well.

Interestingly, one thing you don't get with that is SMS. In fact, according to the Handy website FAQ, that’s why they can afford to offer unlimited voice and data.

Think of that for a moment.

Anyway, it’s an interesting idea, albeit not a new one. Companies like TouristPad in Singapore and PadInTheCity in Madrid offers a similar rental service for iPads with unlimited connectivity. However, they’re also much more expensive. PadInTheCity charges 25 euros a day, while TouristPad charges $24 a day for the first two days and $16 a day after that (though in both cases, you do get doorstep delivery and pick-up at your hotel or office).

Still, smart-device rentals have an obvious appeal when you consider unlimited data angle (data roaming charges being as steep as they are) and the tendency of some operators to lock smartphones to SIM cards, making prepaid SIMs an unviable option. And with many users worried about racking up huge data charges when traveling anyway, a rental option like this would allow cellco partners to at least make some money from tourists using data rather than none at all.

Which raises the obvious question: could affordable smartphone rentals replace data roaming?

Not likely. For a start, if the rental process is anything like getting a prepaid SIM card, most users may think it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Also, a big disadvantage of using a rental device rather than your own device is that … well, it’s not YOUR device. Which means it doesn’t have your stuff on it. Having your phonebook and emails and content in the cloud can lower the inconvenience factor, but you would still have to go to the trouble of logging in to all of your existing services and apps (and possibly downloading all the missing ones). In the end, most people are still ultimately going to want the convenience of using their own device when they roam.

Also, users might be put off by the prospect of inputting their personal data on a rental smartphone, although Handy says smartphones are reset to factory settings after they’re returned.

Speaking of which, in case you were wondering what’s stopping customers from simply taking the phone back home with them, that’s easy: a sizable cash deposit or an “authorization hold” on their credit card.

Handy also advises that the smartphones won’t work if you try to put your own SIM card in them when you get back home.

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