Watch where you’re treading. It could cost you

When we asked Reg readers to tell us about their experiences with mobile roaming, quite a few of you came back with some interesting insights. And you’re not happy.

In the world of always available, always connected, where we’re increasingly tapping into websites and servers while on the move at home and abroad, it’s not really surprising that how much mobile access actually costs can be a contentious area.

The fact that data roaming charges exist at all clearly irks a number of you. As one reader succinctly put it:

I can see why there’s a roaming charge for voice calls; these are being routed over an international connection (assuming you’re not calling within the country you’re visiting); but what does the data roaming pay for?

The data “call” just needs to be routed to the appropriate internet address, it doesn’t require any connection back home (other than to send the billing details); so the roaming charge is just a fee for local usage and billing information.

Another reader asked:

Why are the charges so high? Even 50 Euros is a lot of money, if you haven’t got it. Is it because the operators need a brake on usage outside their own networks, because they can’t support unlimited bandwidths, because they don’t want everyone using Skype when they are abroad, or what? You would suspect there is a sound commercial reason, or maybe it really is the marketing people thinking they can really stick it to the users, because enough people will forget about the charges to make it worth their while, that is they make more money having insane charges than they would with sane ones. Take tethering on iPhones for example, why?

These are very typical questions that users (and not just from this site) come back to time and time again. This is an problem that mobile operators have failed to deliver a satisfactory response to, steadfastly claiming that roaming prices should remain high, and regularly opposing any moves to reduce them, with no apparent justification – at least not one that customers can understand. A recent example was when the four main UK mobile operators, Vodafone, Telefónica O2, T-Mobile and Orange, contested the legality of roaming regulation, which established maximum prices that can be charged by mobile operators for calls received and made by a user outside their home network. Unfortunately for them, they lost.

But while this was doubtless a coup for mobile users, this only applies to Europe. So, potentially, what the regulator takes away with one hand – from Europe, the operators can claw back with another – from elsewhere, where there are no restrictions on roaming charges. Even within Europe Reg readers spot the potential for operators to manipulate packages to bypass regulation, in part, to keep the cost of roaming as high as possible. As one Reg reader explained:

I was in Krakow earlier last month so contacted my UK provider about the data cap, and inquired about their bolt on package for using data abroad (an extra £20, which would have given me a pool of 10Mb to use in Poland before eating into the international charges). My provider said, quite simply, no, and that customers could ask to have roaming charges capped to £40pcm or they can get the bolt-on, but not both. What this means in practice is that in order to get the “cheap” data abroad discounts, customers must waive their rights to have their bills capped.

Another reader cynically noted that following the introduction of roaming charge caps, their operators introduced a per call connection charge of 79 Euro cents, which clearly has the potential to mount up very quickly. While users abroad are increasingly aware of the fact that, if they consume too much mobile data, it is going to hit them in the pocket, whatever the reasons might be, there is still the potential to get caught out.

This isn’t just about someone misguidedly checking out a YouTube video on their mobile because they are stuck in a rather boring conference and need a distraction – only to end up running up a £150 bill for 3 minutes of Susan Boyle. Rather, this is about failing to check things such as SMS messages sent by mobile operators of the country you are roaming to (these are a prerequisite in the EU). These will typically contain important pricing information that it is not wise to ignore.

Additionally, if you don’t make sure that phone settings are set to clamp-down to prevent automatic receive and send, it can be a costly mistake. As one reader observed:

Where a lot of people seem to get caught out is that their iPhone / BlackBerry, or whatever, polls for new email messages on a regular basis, and this runs up data charges even if they don’t actually receive any emails.

While there was little sympathy for the mobile operators, not all readers felt that the blame lay entirely with them. Handset manufactuers are continuously pushing out new functions, and that’s stimulating more data use.

So many devices and features are now based around the software being able to use web services or other web data without user intervention to keep up to date. They all expect to be able to get that data without the user’s distinct permission each time, which is granted because the user knows they’re not going to get stung for extra costs if they are on an ‘all you can eat’ package. If people end up on cost-per-byte contracts, then they’re going to shy away from modern smartphones that have the capability of running up huge bills whilst they’re asleep.

You could argue that, in an age when mobile costs are spiralling upwards at an alarming rate, where mobile devices encourage users to do more, and where users are more conscious of the need to rein in mobile spending, operators need to take a serious look at their prices, in terms of levels, transparency and flexibility, and reassure users that it is possible to keep control of their bills.

Regulation might be helping in some locations, but we question whether this is really enough. Of course, users are resourceful creatures who embrace temporary solutions such as local SIMs and Wi-Fi hotspots – and who blog about them, to boot, for the general good. The pressure on operators to play ball is clearly growing, however, and maybe – just maybe – if they don’t listen to what their customers really want, they will suffer.

If we lose trust over voice and data charging, we are unlikely to turn to those operators for more advanced applications and services in the future.

Content Contributors: Josie Sephton

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