Betamax what is it? Why is so popular in Europe?

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"Betamax GmBH - information about the company

Betamax GmbH & Co KG (www.betamax.com) is a company registered in Cologne, Germany. In December 2005 it took over all of the VoIP services previously run by Finarea SA, and has since added a few more. With one exception, all of these services offer the same features; the only difference seems to be in the rates charged to various destinations at any one time, and in the color scheme used on the web pages and soft phones.

There are some indications that Betamax might just be a front for Finarea which still operates traditional PSTN call-by-call services in a number of European and Asian countries.

The major feature of these services is free calls to a varying number of international destinations; the list of free destinations varies both over time and between the different services. Except for short, 1-minute test calls, free calls require the user to have a credit balance; they are generally limited to a length of 1 hour (although it is possible to redial straight away), and as of May 10, 2006, free calls are limited to 300 minutes (5 hours) per account and week, after which calls to “free” destinations are billed at 1ct/min.

List of services

These services provide a soft phone to use on your MS Windows PC, but also work with SIP devices and softphones (as of May 3, there are instructions for configuring SIP devices on all of the websites):

Some of these services are also available with a different top-level domain, i.e. netappel.com is also available as netappel.fr, voipstunt.com is also available as voipstunt.de, etc.

The following service is geared specifically towards users of SIP devices and does NOT provide a softphone. It does require an MS Windows program though to register for the service. It will work with standard SIP softphones such as Firefly or X-Lite.

The following service requires an Internet Connection, a Web Browser, and a normal telephone; it is a web-activated callback service rather than a normal VoIP service (although it is probably
implemented internally by VoIP):

Early September 2006 Betamax lauched their first wholesale VoIP service (voicetrading.com). This service is targeted at the business user with a minimum call volume of 5000 minutes per month. No free service here, but still they offer excellent rates to both landline and mobile destinations:

In October / November 2006 the latest Betamax-product was launched;

VoIP-IN Numbers

With most (all?) of these services, Betamax offered free VoIP-IN numbers reachable from the PSTN in several countries. In order to obtain a VoIP-IN number a credit balance was required although no charge was made for the number; according to their Terms & Conditions you could lose your number if you let your credit expire (i.e. no credit top-up for more than 90/120 days). If your account had a credit balance and you were located in a qualifying country, you were offered the option to get a number when you logged into the web site.

As from June 2006 Betamax is not offering any VoIP-IN numbers anymore. This is probably because of legal issues in several European countries. In The Netherlands all VoIP-IN numbers were cancelled in the beginning of May 2006 because it was not allowed by the telecom-law to have a number with a different area code as where you live. In The Netherlands VoIP numbers were given most of the times with arbitrary area-codes.

After all numbers were cancelled it was possible to request a new VoIP-IN number with the correct area code but after July 2006 this is also not possible anymore. Probably because of legal issues like this.

Article in Dutch!! about OPTA taking back VoIP-IN numbers Voipbuster.

VoIP Servers

It seems that initially Finarea ran its own Asterisk servers offering SIP/IAX connectivity, they were located in different hosting centers across Europe (Colt Germany, Rackspace UK, etc). Shortly before the transfer to Betamax they started to consolidate all of their services on servers operated by TVIconnect BV, who are PSTN termination providers for callshops across Europe.

The following are currently (jan 2006) the recommended servers, which all point to the same IP addresses:

  • sip1.voipbuster.com
  • sip1.sipdiscount.com
  • sip.voipstunt.com
  • sip.voipdiscount.com
  • sip.sparvoip.de
  • sip.voipcheap.com

Payment and Business Model

The question is frequently posed, “How do they do this”, and (especially about the VoIP services with ‘free’ destinations) “What’s the catch?”

All of these services require pre-payment; i.e. you purchase a certain amount of credit using PayPal or your credit card, and can then make calls until your credit is used up. For most users, credit is also necessary for free calls: unless you have credit, your free calls are limited to 1 minute per call.

If you only make calls to free destinations, your credit will not be used up; but unless you purchase more credit within 90 or 120 days (or never like in webcalldirect), your remaining credit will expire. Since the system will not let you purchase more credit unless your balance is below EUR 5, your remaining credit definitely will expire unless you use it.

Thus, the company realizes revenue even from users who only make free calls. Since the minimum top-up payment is EUR 10 (in some cases initial payment is EUR 5), if all you call is free destinations, you are effectively paying EU 3.33 / EU 2.50 per month for a very economical flatrate.

A lot of customer unhappiness is generated when any one of the services, where a user has a relatively high balance, stops offering free calls to that user’s favorite destination, while one of the other services still offers them; since there is no way of transferring credit from one Betamax service to another, it means either using up the credit on the first service (and thus not making free calls), or allowing that credit to expire while purchasing credit for the service which still offers free calls.

No doubt that is one of Betamax’ ways of maximizing its revenue, and while it may rankle, it is generally still the best deal to simply use up your credit on no longer free (but in all likelihood still cheap) calls with the first service before signing up for another service (unless you need multiple accounts for some purpose).

Another irritation is the fact that not only credit expires 90 or 120 days after the last purchase, but so does the VoIP-IN number associated with the account. Thus, if you simply forget to top up, you may loose your number and probably will not get the same number back.

I believe that many of these irritations could be avoided if Betamax simply offered a flat rate package, charging, say, EUR 3/month, for VoIP-In number and free calls to ALL of their free destinations, with the option of setting up recurring payments, thus avoiding any mishaps. But for some reason they don’t seem to want to do this.

Privacy Concerns

Some users of Betamax services suspect the company of selling their phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

I am a current customer of four of these services and have not noticed any SPAM or telemarketing which I would suspect to be related to that fact. Nor have the explanations of those making these accusations convinced me.

I don’t know whether Betamax does any telemarketing themselves; if they do it in countries where it is legal I don’t see the problem with it (neihter, of course, do I see any problem with attempts and strategies to thwart telemarketers — that’s called freedom).

But automated telemarketing does not rely on collecting phone numbers the way e-mail spam relies on collected e-mail addresses; telemarketers generally just call all numbers in a given prefix sequentially. So unless you get a marketing call by a live person who knows your name, chances are that nobody gave out your phone number but that it simply was your turn. The same applies to SMS spam: it just gets sent to all numbers sequentially.

Finarea S.A. business

Finarea S.A. the Switzerland based company that owned the VoIP services (Voipbuster, Voipstunt, etc, as discussed on this page) before Betamax took them over is the owner of the following telephony services in Europe:

Austria

Belgium

Czech Republic

Eire (Republic of Ireland)

Finland

France

Germany

Hong Kong

Italy

Netherlands

Norway

Poland

Sweden

Switzerland


United Kingdom

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