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Monday, April 18, 2011

Is mobile data roaming structurally flawed?

Fascinating article by David Meyer at ZDnet, as part of his ongoing coverage of mobile data roaming.

He points out the possibility of the European Commission forcing a structural split between domestic and roaming service provision. Basically, there seems to be frustration that voice (and especially data) prices and consumer choices have not changed quickly enough, despite recent regulation on tariff caps and anti-billshock thresholds. In particular, there is concern that customers don't know in advance how/when/where they will travel, so they cannot make an educated decision about which tariff is "best" at the start of a contract. Most people have a feel for the number of minutes / texts they send per month - but no idea how much data they might use on visits Spain, the US or in Kyrgyzstan over the next 24 months.

Ironically, even when people *do* look at roaming prices as part of making a decision among competitive domestic offers, the operators feel that it's such a minor part of the plan that they are free to make unilateral changes to those roaming prices, while the contract is still in force. This is exactly what happened to me, last year. Certainly, few price plans in Europe are marketed upfront as 'roamer-friendly'.

Although it's too early to judge exactly how any future regulation might manifest, a possible option is that customers choose their "domestic" tariff and plan as normal, but then get to choose again about which network(s) and price-plans to use when actually roaming, or before departure.

That said, there's clearly a whole host of issues, concerns and possible "gotchas" here:

  • Is this choice made on a per-trip basis, or at the original time of signing a contract? 
  • How does billing work when roaming? Would (say) Vodafone act as a retailer / billing agent for Orange if I pick them when travelling in France? 
  • What's the user experience like?  
  • Do I need a separate SIM card for my roaming provider? 
  • What happens if my phone is SIM-locked - and how would you avoid worsening the grey market in subsisided phones? 
  • Would I use the same roaming provider for both voice and data? 
  • Whose ultimate responsibility would look after emergency calls; lawful intercept etc? 
  • Will this lead to weird distortions - eg people "roaming" permanently in Europe on a Luxembourg mobile contract, because it's cheaper?
I'm expecting the current mobile operators to scream blue murder about this - it's technically complex, and impacts an area of significant profitability, and potentially means that a licencee in one European country can offer services on an almost-equal basis throughout the continent. They will no doubt point out that there are already assorted opt-ins, or discount programmes (Vodafone Passport etc) that enable customers to tweak their roaming cost profiles.

Also, from my perspective, the problem is less about in-Europe roaming - for which we're seeing OK packages such as Vodafone's £2 / day for 25MB, and more for travelling outside Europe. The current typical charges of £3-6 per MB when I travel to the US, along with £1+ per minute for voice, are completely unjustifiable and make a mockery of smartphone ownership.

I now routinely switch data roaming off completely, and just rely on WiFi. I recently spent a whole week in San Francisco recently without using 3G at all, although it does seem silly that I have to resort to using paper printouts of Google Maps, or buying Starbucks coffee to check my email, when I'm quite prepared to pay a sensible amount for cellular data.

The problem is that there is no jurisdiction that can enforce price caps at both ends of (say) Vodafone/AT&T or Orange/SKT bilateral roaming arrangements. The structure of roaming involves both the wholesale (visited) fee, and the retail (outbound) mark-up price. Maybe the ITU, GSMA or even WTO needs to get involved ultimately, although none of them wants to kill the golden goose, even though they realise how unpopular the rates have become.

Another interim approach might be to make it a requirement for operators to disclose the wholesale rates they are paying, in an attempt to shame the visited network into sensible pricing. (imagine getting this SMS when you arrive at the airport: "Data costs £3/MB because the greedy network you're roaming onto charges a wholesale fee of £2.50/MB. Here's the CEO's email address if you'd like to complain").

Perhaps the best option will be an MVNO, or soft-SIM or dynamic-IMSI approach, with Apple or GroupOn or another third party acting as a tariff aggregator for customers. They could use negotiating power to force down wholesale rates for visited networks (eg Europeans roaming onto AT&T in the US, especially), or emulate the style of Truphone's "Local Anywhere" proposition in having multiple accounts on a single SIM card.

Fundamentally, the model for data roaming is completely flawed - unless you're using your home operator's in-house data services such as mobile TV, there is no need to have your data routed back home anyway. If you just want to connect to the Internet in a foreign country, there's no justification for your domestic service provider to have any role, except acting as a source of convenience. I don't phone up Vodafone for permission every time I want to use WiFi in Lithuania, or an Internet cafe in Mozambique. Now, I *am* prepared to pay for convenience - which is why I'll use ATMs and credit cards everywhere, despite some incremental fees. But I'm certainly not paying a potential £500 for a typical week's worth (100-200MB) of non-EU data usage.

The whole ridiculous process is about to be replicated in LTE - at least when the question of supporting the right frequency bands in a decent % of phones means that LTE roaming becomes vaguely practical. Just as VoLTE is "yesterday's telephony reinvented for LTE", we can expect to see "yesterday's data roaming reinvented for LTE" as well.

The effect of this is likely to further drive the use of free WiFi in traveller-centric hotspots. We're already seeing an increasing prevalance of hotels, airports and tourist cafes offering free data. I've stayed in remote parts of the world and been able to use Skype and Facebook for my communications needs, for free.  In other words, the current structure for mobile data roaming is driving users to a polarised situation. Many now expect *free* WiFi data when travelling, rather than be willing to pay a smaller, reasonable charge for cellular. In the short term, operators are benefiting from the grudging use of roaming by travellers on expenses - or by occasional roamers who are going to suffer from bill shock because of inadvertant use. That is not a sustainable business - the industry needs to wake up & reinvent how data roaming is organised, because the current system (especially outside the EU or other roaming regions) is broken.

EDIT: as an afterthought, ponder the notion that data roaming is, from your home operator's point of view, "best efforts" especially where it's provided through a telco that is not an affiliate. You would have thought that the lowest level of ownership & control (and therefore QoS) would mean you got charged a *lower* price than at home, not higher, would you not? Or perhaps best-efforts data is really good enough, after all?


Anonymous said...

Another potential solution for you, use dual SIM phones and a no frill data offering like the one from www.abroadband.com ...

Anonymous said...

see Free Move alliance