At last, some action on roaming

17 Jun 2010

A big shout to Singapore and Malaysia for taking aim at exorbitant roaming charges.

Comms ministers from the two countries reckon they can bring down voice prices by 30% and text by as much as 50% over the next few months.

About time. Roaming is one of the world’s great legal scams. It allows cellcos to gouge their customers with impunity, and when customers complain, operators merely shake their heads and pretend it’s out of their hands.

Much of this ripoff goes on below the radar. No operator publishes explicit information about its roaming revenue and margins.

It’s no small change, though. Hong Kong-based SmarTone blamed a 2% fall in revenue this past fiscal year in part on the decline in roaming business.

While voice roaming charges between major Asian markets are still high, the great new blag is data roaming.

To give one example: you can get an unlimited mobile data plan from Hutchison’s 3 Hong Kong as part of a HK$198 ($25) monthly package. But if you roam to China, its partner Unicom will offer you a daily rate of 68 yuan (HK$78). That’s right, for around a third of the monthly charge you get one day’s service on the mainland.

Asia is not the EU, which after a long battle has capped prices for internal European roaming. And regulators in Singapore and Malaysia play with a strong hand, given the dominance of state-linked operators in those markets.

But high roaming prices are a market failure. Consumers do not have adequate information and cannot hold their service providers to account; a casebook opening for regulatory intervention if ever there were one.

It’s extraordinary that Asian governments have been so supine on the issue. I can’t think of a single government that wouldn’t want to be able to put its name on lower roaming charges.

The bilateral approach by neighboring countries with a lot of two-way traffic seems to be a measured, achievable one. There’s no reason why Australia and New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan, and Hong Kong and Macau should not follow suit.

The outcomes can be shared through the near-invisible APEC telecoms and information working group, which isn’t exactly overworked.

Telecomasia.netcontacted the Hong Kong regulator, Ofta, and Australia’s ACMA to discuss the issue, but could not get a response.

However, in the wake of the Singapore-Malaysia announcement on Tuesday, Ofta issued a statement advising consumers to be “mindful of unexpected mobile data service charges while roaming overseas.”

Perhaps it was a coincidence, or maybe Ofta thinks that’s all it needs to do.

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