No easy path to controlling data roaming

Craig Skinner/Ovum
12 Jun 2009

Consumers are finding data roaming very different than basic voice and SMS roaming, where the amount of bill damage was effectively limited. Most people are aware of the high international roaming rates and thus limit calls and keep them short.

But with data, the ratio of international to domestic rates is generally higher than the equivalent ratio for voice and SMS. There is an even greater differential when roaming from a country with a high level of competition and 3G networks to a country with 2G networks and less competition.

In addition, it is a lot easier to use data without being aware of the level of consumption. Email and other background applications quietly download data, racking up expenses without the user being aware of it. Large data downloads can be triggered by a simple transaction without the user being aware of the rate of data usage.

This has led to a call to governments and regulators to do something about this problem. To understand what governments and regulators can and can not do, we need to understand the drivers behind high mobile international roaming rates.

In most cases (outbound calls and local data usage) the costs should be similar to other local customers of the international operator. This is where we find that both the international operator charges the home operator a higher wholesale call cost than they charge at a retail level to their own customers (and also in comparison to domestic interconnection costs) as well as an extra mark-up by the home operator on top of these wholesale charges.

Partly, the problem is caused by a lack of information and education. The mobile operator where I worked earlier in my career had a policy at the time that international roaming was deactivated by default. Before travelling internationally, the customer (or the account manager for business accounts) needed to ring up and ask for the international roaming service to be activated. This allowed the customer service representative to check which countries they would be roaming to, alert them to the likely level of costs and ensure the customer was aware of their responsibility for the costs incurred.

Customers often are not aware today of what the international roaming rates are, particularly for data costs. Having grown complacent over the falling voice roaming rates, they are then caught out by the relatively higher data rates. Even in regards to voice roaming rates, the roaming price differentials for some countries can vary by more than 100% depending on which home country mobile operator the customer uses. Some mobile operators offer calls and messages at the same home rate when roaming to their partner networks. Yet, perhaps due to a lack of information or awareness, customers sometimes use a home operator with higher international roaming charges.

Out of their control

Governments and regulators are generally restricted to only being able to influence the wholesale charge that domestic operators within their own country charge to foreign operators for inbound roamers and the mark-up rate that domestic operators apply to the wholesale charges when their customers are roaming internationally. While the second will benefit domestic customers, the first (and likely the larger component) will only benefit foreign customers. Unfortunately, the remit of governments and regulators is to protect the long-term interest of domestic end-users.

The only feasibly effective solution to this conundrum is demonstrated by the EU, which has regulated roaming call and data rates for EU customers within the EU.

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