FNB has begun connecting its clients at lower prices using a range of VOIP technologies over ADSL and mobile data connections. While still a young service, it has the potential to give the local telecoms industry a real shake-up without needing to rely on existing providers or even the much anticipated Seacom cable which lands in South Africa towards the end of May 2009.
I was invited to a demonstration of the FNB Connect service at FNB’s fancy offices in Fairland recently where I was met by Fleishman Hillard’s Sarah Dowding and taken to a boardroom where I met members of the development team.
In a nutshell, FNB Connect is FNB’s foray into the ISP business. FNB distinguishes its offering from other offerings in a number of ways. For one thing FNB Connect is only available to FNB account holders. Second, while FNB Connect includes an ADSL based connectivity option, it also includes a Voice Over IP (or “VOIP”) service using a combination of a desktop application (similar to Skype) and a mobile application (think Skype on your mobile phone). The voice-based service is called “Talk” and the connectivity service is called “Surf“. Sounds simple and, for the most part, it is.
- Instant messaging
- Free 087 number for life (with additional numbers at R50 per number)
- Digital phone
- Free e-mail address
- Mobile access to the service
ConnectXtra is a subscription-based alternative that gives users all of the ConnectChat features in addition to free “on-net calls” which basically means calls to other FNB Connect users are free. ConnectChat costs users a once off activation fee of R49 which basically translates into R49 worth of credit whereas ConnectXtra costs R249 which includes the R49 activation fee/credit and a R200 annual subscription fee.
A central component of the Talk services is the digital phone.
FNB would like you to use its software digital phone (available for your Windows and Linux PC – not the Mac just yet – and Windows and Symbian mobile phones) but you can also use other compatible software applications (including SIP based Internet telephony capable devices and software). If most of that was gibberish (and it may have been, my grasp of the technical stuff is a little patchy) then you are probably just interested in this:
The fact that the FNB software is available for Linux and not for Mac OS appeals to me and irks me at the same time but I was assured that there is a Mac OS version in development. It is being tested and we should see it released in due course.
The mobile device requirements can be found here.
Here is a summary of the costs. I think you will find them to be fairly appealing:
Here is a number of comparisons between FNB Connect’s Talk charges and comparable service providers for good measure:
The second component of the FNB Connect offering is its data service which is called Connecti-Fuel. Like other ISPs, Connecti-Fuel works through an ADSL capable line and offers, among other features, unshaped data, 5 concurrent connections and a respectable price or R0.069 per MB (or R69 per GB) with no data caps or fixed-term contracts.
Both the Talk and Surf options include free email accounts. What is not immediately apparent from the website is that the email accounts are essentially Google Mail powered email accounts which give their users roughly 7GB mailboxes. Users can purchase additional mailboxes at R20 per mailbox.
Here is a price comparison matrix comparing FNB Connect’s data offering to similar offerings in the marketplace:
Keeping the wheels turning
FNB Connect is designed for people who prefer to think in terms of Rands and cents and not in bits and bytes. Connect users who are familiar with FNB’s Internet banking portal will be right at home with FNB Connect’s back-end.
Regardless of whether users decide to use a Talk or Surf service (or both), they pre-pay their FNB Connect accounts using a payment beneficiary link from their bank account. This is deliberate. FNB wants its FNB Connect users to have certainty about and control over what they are spending on their FNB Connect service/s and not have to worry that it is becoming yet another uncontrolled drain on their bank balance. One of FNB’s goals is to help its users manage their finances better.
Of course it is fairly obvious that FNB isn’t averse to reaping the benefits of providing a closely linked data and VOIP service to its customers which encourages those customers to spend a little more money on FNB services that would otherwise be paid to 3rd party service providers.
In order to use the Talk and Surf services, users load up their Talk and Surf accounts from their bank accounts. Users can pre-pay their budgeted allowance into their various service “buckets” and stick to that or they can set up an Auto Top-up facility where their FNB Connect services will be topped up if they reach their limits on a schedule the user creates. These automatic top-ups can be scheduled for specific times of the month in specific amounts. Users will also receive notifications via inContact as they would their other transactions so it should be too difficult to keep track of their accounts.
Finally, the FNB Connect website is designed to inform and educate users and potential users. FNB aims to provide the information in fairly plain language bearing in mind that it is not targeting a technical userbase.
Thoughts on FNB Connect
On the whole I think the service is pretty appealing. I like the emphasis FNB places on Rand values as opposed to amounts of data and data transfer rates. These services are not really intended for more advanced users but rather for relatively untechnical users who are looking to save costs and at the same time take advantage of a decent voice and data service. Focusing on Rand based balances makes it easier for users to keep track of their expenditure and the auto top-up option makes it pretty easy to schedule top-ups when needed and within a user’s budget.
FNB’s inclusion of a VOIP service is interesting and, in some ways, progressive. The average user is far more familiar with a traditional phone and mobile phone. VOIP must seem a little fancy at first but both the mobile and PC applications are designed to look and function like a mobile phone, easing new users into the world of VOIP. I am a little concerned that there is no mention on the site that the Talk service is only available for so long as there is an ADSL or 3G connection (I’m not sure how the voice service operates on slower mobile connections). While users can send SMS and IM messages using the soft phone, voice quality may vary as with any VOIP service in a flaky bandwidth environment. Users should perhaps be alerted to the fact that the service may not be as reliable as a physical phone in emergency situations.
I wasn’t able to test the soft phone on my laptop because there isn’t a Mac version available yet. I understand that the development team has been working on this project largely outside their usual working hours so I’ll skip the usual “why-oh-why-isn’t-my-Mac-supported?” rant and remind you that there should be a Mac application available shortly. I tried to install the Symbian version on my E71 but the application failed to launch once installed. This isn’t surprising since this sort of thing happens to me when I need the app to work. The FNB team did respond to my support requests pretty quickly and are trying to figure out why an application which was approved by Symbian doesn’t work on my device. In the meantime, be sure to look out for other reviewers who were able to test these applications.
Perhaps what interests me more than what is available now is what could well be coming down the line. I asked the development team if the FNB Connect service is likely to expand to include other forms of communication and evolve into a sort of unified communications service. Although they didn’t unequivocally confirm this is part of the plan, I understood that this is pretty much where the team wants to take the service. That would make FNB Connect a very appealing service indeed if you think about the value of using a single 087 number for your voice, SMS and even fax requirements with all your communication inputs being routed into a single inbox. This sort of service would certainly benefit FNB because its customers would not only depend on FNB to help manage their financial affairs but now much of their communications requirements too!
But wait, there is more. Further prodding and prompting elicited encouraging noises around future location and status based services either being provided by FNB or simply being facilitated by FNB. The big picture in a couple years time becomes a pretty interesting one from a communications perspective. FNB customers become even more heavily invested in FNB’s bundle of services and FNB, in turn, evolves its customer base into an even richer resource.
I was tempted to retain an account of some sort at FNB just to keep these options open to me when I heard about the service. I am still thinking about it but in the meantime I think it is fair to say FNB Connect is going to give the local telecoms market a couple things to think about too, particularly when it comes to cost effective converged services. In the end it will hopefully be not just FNB customers who will benefit from this but South Africans generally.
FNB Connect, real-time
Below is an embed of my live coverage of the launch event and discussions about the product care of FriendFeed: