I had a meeting in a London hotel this morning, and saw a leaflet from this company at the concierge's desk. It was titled "Free Unlimited Internet - Rent an iPhone 3GS", with rates at between £12 and £18 per day, including £5 of outbound calling credit. The devices come pre-loaded with the London Lonely Planet and assorted other useful apps.
It follows on from another article I read recently about MiFi rental (£19 for 3 days), with the device sent to your hotel.
Both of these are welcome examples of a concerted push-back against the still-ridiculous prices for mobile data roaming (and of course the continued premium for roaming voice).
It is ridiculous that in many places, data roaming still fails my "taxi test" - Can you walk from point A to point B across a city, using Google Maps on your phone, with the data costs lower than the price of just jumping in a cab instead?
It still astonishes me that mobile operators can, on one hand, profess to being interested in "customer advocacy" to drive "loyalty", while on the other, they will blatantly charge roaming fees so egregious that they constitute contempt for their own customers. (Or, by proxy, charging ridiculous wholesale rates for inbound users, so their home operators have little choice but to scalp them in turn).
Over time, I expect these type of arbitrage opportunities to proliferate - easier-to-obtain SIMs (perhaps pre-registered by your hotel, as they have your ID and passport details). Cheap Android or other smartphones provided by the tourist agency or local stores. Clever call-forwarding options for voice, and so on.
I've been expecting the operators themselves to start developing more intelligent, transaction-based deals ("One week & 1GB for 15 Euros") to address this latent need, but thus far they've abdicated that marketspace. I expect to see a thriving community of service providers such as the ones I've mentioned to fill the gap - although it wouldn't surprise me if Google or Nokia decided to consolidate the space and offer an international managed-service version of this themselves.
In a way it's ridiculous, but I could easily see myself renting a second iPhone or MiFi when I travel, and switching off the roaming on my normal one. I'm sure I won't be alone.