International roaming re-entered the news last month, with a call from the Indonesian Communication and Information Minister for an ASEAN free roaming zone. International roaming has received an increasing amount of attention from regulators around the world as a result of high and opaque pricing, which has contributed to significant bill shock.
While there has been regulation of roaming in Europe and among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), most roaming in the world remains unregulated. Asia occupies an intermediate position - there is movement toward regulation, but no regional framework yet.
The explosion in the number of connected devices, and particularly the fast growth of mobile connectivity worldwide, has put international mobile roaming under the spotlight in almost every continent. Fast growth in the volume of data traffic over mobile networks is also driving the issue, because data roaming is significantly more expensive than voice roaming. It is also far more costly than domestic mobile data traffic, sometimes many hundreds of times more expensive.
The European Union (EU) was the first bloc of countries to impose price regulation on voice, SMS and data services at both wholesale and retail levels. But elsewhere, coordination problems and the lack of a legal basis for intervention have thwarted efforts to introduce an international framework for roaming.
The politics of the issue are also awkward. Lower charges in the home market only go to the advantage of visitors to the country, and reduce roaming revenues for domestic operators. The European example shows that operators will resist change. Also, customer pressure for reform is muted, simply because most people spend most of their time in their home market.
To complicate matters, it is not clear precisely what should be done. The Asia Pacific Telecommunity, the focal organization for ICT in the region, takes the view that simply capping roaming charges could have the side-effect of reducing roaming competition. This could happen, for example, if operators adopt the cap price as a price signal, allowing them to converge roaming prices. Safe in the knowledge that no one has an incentive to break ranks, the operators would have little incentive to cut roaming prices.