National Geographic Joins Wireless Race

Banking on Brand, Global Cell Service Aims for Travelers
By ROGER CHENG for The Wall Street Journal.
March 7, 2007

Article on the WSJ website.

Rapid growth in the wireless industry has drawn into the business a number of widely known companies not typically known for phone service. The latest entry is the National Geographic Society, which hopes to attract world travelers to its new international cellphone service.

National Geographic's Talk Abroad Travel Phone works on a prepaid model, allowing customers to buy or rent a phone and then pay in advance for minutes. The service, which starts this month and will work in more than 100 countries, includes a United Kingdom-based number that customers can keep no matter where they go.

To use the service, customers can buy a phone with a special SIM card, or just buy the card and snap it into their own phones. It is compatible with several hundred carriers around the world through partnerships struck by privately held Cellular Abroad of Playa del Rey, Calif., which is managing the service.

Past efforts to turn a brand name into a successful cellphone service have led to mixed results. Walt Disney Co. sells a wireless service in the U.S., Disney Mobile, which offers plans to help parents track their children. Disney Mobile charges a premium, believing that customers will pay more for its uniquely branded offering. Still, a U.S. cellular service offered by Disney's sports unit, ESPN, folded in September amid a lack of interest. ESPN now provides its content through other carriers.

While Disney and ESPN were running their own services after leasing network capacity from U.S. wireless carrier Sprint Nextel Corp., National Geographic will only be lending its name and advertising support, which significantly reduces its risks.

Customers can buy the specially designed National Geographic phone, made by WP Phones, a unit of Swiss-based WP World Phones International SA, for $199. Customers in the U.S. can also rent the phone, which costs $49 for one week to $129 for two months. The phone runs on the global system for mobile communication standard -- the most widely used standard in the world. Customers who already have a GSM phone that is unlocked -- or not affiliated with a particular carrier -- can buy a SIM card that plugs into their phone to get the service.

In 65 of the 105 countries where the service is available, incoming calls are free. Rates start at 90 cents a minute for outgoing calls and go as high as $2.70 for more remote regions. Those who initiate calls on the other end are charged standard international rates for a call from their location to a U.K. number. Users on the other line who receive the call get charged the standard incoming rate for a U.K. number.

While the international phone works in many areas, it shouldn't be confused with a satellite phone, a far more expensive option that can work practically anywhere. The National Geographic service is dependent on nearby cellular towers and won't work in especially remote regions.

National Geographic is trying a prepaid approach similar to that taken by two other U.S.-based international wireless-service providers, Telestial Inc. and Planet Omni, a unit of QuantumStar. A prepaid plan can save customers money because they put money into a calling plan ahead of time, so they only pay for the minutes they use. A monthly plan is often costlier because it offers a set price regardless of use.

It can also help users keep costs in control. While other cellular-service providers may allow customers to use their phones outside their home countries, the fees can mount more quickly than they realize until they receive their bills.

"With a prepaid solution, we're avoiding cellular sticker shock," says Markus Hutnak, who heads the licensing, apparel and outdoor-equipment business for National Geographic. The rates are comparable to the other international services.

More than a year ago, National Geographic partnered with Cellular Abroad to work on a wireless offering. Under the deal, Cellular Abroad manages the service and provides customer support, marketing and distribution. Initially, the service will be sold through Cellular Abroad's Web site, ; the company hopes to expand to electronic boutiques and mail catalogs.

There is strong interest in the service among professional mountain climbers and tour guides, Mr. Hutnak says. He says the service also can help parents keep in touch with children studying or traveling abroad. "Whether the kid decides to pick up, that we can't really control," Mr. Hutnak says.

Write to Roger Cheng at

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