Same tune from GSMA on roaming

19 Sep 2006

Roaming has always been a rather contentious issue for consumer advocates. Simply put, roaming used to be a huge luxury that GSM operators offered their subscribers, enabling them the convenience of having a single cellphone that worked across different countries, continents.

At the time, business users with fat corporate expense accounts were more than happy to pay for the privilege. But as mobile phone penetration increased and more people roamed, more of them noticed they were paying exorbitant rates when they were using their phones abroad.

Worst, there was no explanation for the high fees, which made even less sense when the calls were made to local numbers in a foreign market.

Needless to say, questions followed and eventually uproar from organizations such as the International Telecommunications User Group, which, a few years back, managed to convince investigators at the European Commission to raid the offices of prominent European mobile operators to gather evidence of abusing consumer interests.

There have been no reports as to the outcome of those investigations, but the European operator community, led by the GSM Association, has responded by reluctantly admitting that something needs to be done.

Agreeing not to disagree

Their solution‾ Set up a Web site that will help consumers find the 'best' roaming rates when they are traveling around Europe.

The Web site, launched by GSM Europe - the European interest group of the GSMA - gives detailed rates for operators in the 25 EU countries. By selecting your domestic operator and the country that you will be heading to, the Web site generates a table listing the roaming rates of operators in that country. Rates for a two-minute call back to your home country, and to a local number during peak time as well as incoming calls are listed.

The goal of the site states 'GSM Europe responds to consumer demand in Europe for greater transparency in international retail roaming prices.' The problem is that the definition of 'transparency' is interpreted rather loosely.

Yes, all the prices are listed for the stated categories, but the rates are all the same, for all the operators in the destination country - at least for the five or six destinations that I checked on the site. So if you are traveling from the UK to Italy for example, you will be paying 70 pence to call back to the UK if you roam on TIM, Vodafone or WIND.

Transparency apparently means agreement for the operators and the site. The message from the operators can easily be read as: 'if consumers want to know more about the rates and how they can find ways to save on roaming costs, then we'll publish the rates - except since that means all the operators will see their competitors' rates, to avoid any undue advantage and, God forbid, a price war on roaming rates, we'll just all come to together and agreed on the same rates to charge roamers coming onto our networks to avoid any conflict.'

Anti-trust, collusion and price-fixing aside, there are plenty of areas that can be more 'transparent.' For example, how come the roaming charges for a call back to the home country is the same rate as calling a local number in the foreign country.

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