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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The need for a new approach to roaming

I've spent most of this afternoon sorting out all my meetings and logistics for a week in Barcelona at NetEvents and MWC. One thing that's immediately apparent is that despite all the talk of VoIP, SIM-swapping and the like, I'm going to end up with a large bill for voice and SMS roaming.

I've got dozens of meetings, loads of people I'll need to contact (or be contacted by), inevitable changes to schedules and venues, plus all the usual work and personal call traffic I'd normally get in the UK. I'll be paying for both inbound and outbound roaming calls, which even at the EU's maximum 39p per minute is still likely to add up.

It's clearly not an option just to get a local SIM card - most of the people I need to contact will be outside Spain, and there are too many people likely to contact me, to inform everyone of a new number. For the same reason, one of the "roaming SIMs" is probably not a solution. I can't even have a 'regular' Spanish SIM that I keep year-in year-out, as it would expire after a few months without use.

Neither is WiFi an option. The congestion of the Kubi network at the Barcelona Fira is notorious - as is the pricing. And in any cases, much of the calling I'll need to make will be outside the MWC precincts, in the centre of town or assorted other venues in the evening. Even if it was working and relatively well-priced, many of the VoWLAN service providers have haphazard support of SMS, which is absolutely mandatory at trade shows where you have back-to-back meetings. I will have a voicemail message advising callers to text me, as it's the most reliable method to reach me during the show, rather than voice or email.

It's made me even more certain that the concept of paying a multiple of normal calling or SMS rates when you're travelling, rather than just perhaps a moderate % premium, is a complete anachronism. There is simply no adequate justification, either in terms of technology involved or the value to the user - even with the arcane setup of cellular VLRs and whatnot. The fact that a local SIM would work perfectly fine, barring the hassle factor of advising people of a new number, is a potent illustration of how well things could work, if the system didn't stack the odds against you. It's even more galling because my main number is with O2, which is owned by Spanish operator Telefonica, so I'm paying them huge sums to bounce my call around inside their own network.

I wonder what the regulatory view will be like when operators move to a full IMS or softswitch architecture, when it may not even be necessary for roaming calls or signalling to be "tromboned" back to the home network?

My situation (a frequent traveller, but to lots of different countries) is similar but not identical to those in which someone has two or three regular destinations. People living and working across land borders (eg Hong Kong and mainland China, or the Benelux countries in Europe) often need multiple phones, while people with foreign holiday homes, or students studying abroad, have similar problems. In some cases, their non-resident status may stop them from having postpaid subscriptions in a second country, even if they were prepared to pay for them.

What would be good would be a way to get a local SIM or account/number - ideally without physically having to buy one - and for this to automatically propagated to all your contacts when you were in-country. Or for it to somehow be linked to your existing home account in the network.

One set of possible solutions relates to what I was writing about the other day - multi-IMSI SIM cards could potentially allow two or more local mobile accounts to be tied together via a centralised meta-operator. In a way, this would be a more elegant approach than a dual-SIM phone as the meta-operator could essentially do clever things with call and SMS routing, caller IDs and so on, to give you the appearance of roaming but with local call rates.

I've heard various rumours over the last year or so about this type of "local roaming" concept, but apart from a variant used for telematics and M2M data connectivity, I haven't seen much real action. I suspect that actually getting it working, with all the various permutations for call flows, is pretty tricky - and it's also not obvious to me whether you'd still need some form of client software, or if it can all be tied together via on-SIM applications and menus. There may also be dependencies on different countries' regulatory and commercial stance on MVNOs, plus there are requirements for registration of all SIMs' owners in some markets.

I live in hope. But in the meantime, I think I'll just be very concise with my calls next week. Blame O2 if you call me and I sound abrupt or rude.


vinnie said...

Dean, you should not have to, and because you will shorten your calls, o2 is not likely to maximize its revenues either. There must be an equilibrium point where you and I don't have to need pivot tables and mutli-layered Excel spreadsheets to make these decisions. All the telcos need to do is fire their current pricing analysts and get some with common sense. We would not need multiple SIMs and other back flips.

BTW - guess how much I am incented to use AT&T when I travel to India and it wants $2.49 a minute and in Romania at $3.99 a minute

Anonymous said...

If you roam into AIS in thailand you get an option to get a local prepaid number on your current SIM card. So you can accept calls both from your home network and on a local number at the same time. You can also choose if an outgoing call should be from your new local number or your usual number.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

In CSL, you could get a service called "JustOne Card" that gives you a China, Macau or Taiwan local number in addition to the HK CSL number.

Curt Carmack said...

Dean, I know it's not available to you, but it's worth noting that services like Google's Grand Central allow you to temporarily add a new number under your account. I give out my GrandCentral number and when I get a call on it, it rings all the other numbers I've designated. So if I'm temporarily using another number (local SIM), I can add it and it's transparent to the caller. For outgoing calls on my mobile (iPhone), I use an app called GrandDialer that connects the outgoing call from GrandCentral. Pretty slick solution for the situations you describe. Of course it doesn't solve the SMS issue . . .

Frederic Bastien said...

Hi Dean,
I also used to come back from MWC in Barcelona with a hefty invoice from my Canadian GSM carrier, but I do now use a SIM card from a Multi-IMSI service provider and it's quite affordable.

There are several of them who have the technology live. See this for more details:

I acknowledge that most live Multi-IMSI deployments are MVNO/MVNE, and it's a shame that MNOs (especially multi-country MNOs such as Telefonica/O2 or VF) are not yet taking advantage of the technology. If your HLR is multi-IMSI capable, then it is completely transparent to the end-user and to the visited networks. The only complex task is the negotiation of these IMSI deals, but I have to assume that pan-European operators would be able to negotiate such deals fairly easily.

Pat Phelan said...

why not just get a MAXroam, we can add a Spanish DID for you, you already have a London DID
You then have a local DID in any destination 55 countries available and counting
@frederic can you tell us the carrier that is using multi IMSI as I am unaware of it

Dean, I think you will see a multi imsi announcement on Tues from someone known to us all

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments. I'll check out the AIS and CSL services.

Curt - yes, I'm aware of Grand Central, definitely an interesting player in this area. Are you at eComm in March?

Frederic - thanks, I have a meeting with Blueslice scheduled at MWC.

Pat - good points, we should also catch up soon.

FWIW - I got a Yoigo SIM in Barcelona, so at least I get cheap local mobile data....


Curt Carmack said...


I'm not in the wireless space, so eComm is not on my radar -- it's just one of my personal interests. Hope Barcelona went well -- at least you solved your data problem.