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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Per-megabyte rip-off in the UK

Listen up UK mobile operators! Your GPRS/3G pricing is ludicrous! Treat your roaming customers like this, and you're building up a future base of potential churn candidates like you wouldn't believe.....

I'm in the market for a new mobile tariff plan. I've decided I'm paying too much, and with a few foreign trips coming up I thought I'd see what's on offer. In particular, I want a plan which gives me vaguely-reasonable per-MB data charges to the "real Internet" both in the UK and from abroad. (No, not a portal. I want Google, Yahoo, my ISP Email & worldsbestbars.com when I'm on the road)

I'm not happy.

Firstly, trying to find data charges on operators' websites is almost impossible. "Check the fine print" is an understatement even for in-UK domestic rates. And I feel I deserve a Nobel Prize for actually daring to try to get to international data roaming fees.

And then the prices.

Overall, they are somewhere between 10x and 1000x reasonable figures.

For reference, let's look at what putting data onto the Internet costs. A quick burst on Google yields a few ISPs quoting $0.50 - $2.00 per gigabyte, not megabyte. Some fixed-broadband ISPs charge not much more "per incremental extra GB" downloaded on capped services, say $1-5 / GB. A not unreasonable premium vs. the scale economies of hosting.

So where do the 3 or 4 extra zeros go in the cellular network?

I'm not going to list all the tariffs here, but the typical "pay per use" domestic UK GPRS/3G tariff from a phone (ie not a laptop data card package) is around £2-3 ($3-5) per MB. Then there are bundles that give you say 10MB at 60p ($1) per MB.... but these aren't available on all phones/PDAs, or all voice plans.

So, let's say I want to get the O2-specific version of the HTC Wizard (which looks pretty ideal for web browsing over either 2.5G or WiFi).... I go through the purchase screens, and the only tariff options give me £3 per MB, with no option to select bundles, unless I want to restrict myself to on-portal use at O2 Active and i-Mode (NO!!! I WANT THE REAL INTERNET!!!!!)

T-Mobile at least gives a more general bundling offer, but we're still looking at stupid prices of around $1-2 per MB.

And then there's the killer. International data roaming.

Step forward Orange, and collect your prize for the most ludicrous tariff I've seen. Up to £25 per MB for some countries. That's $44. It's even £10 / MB to roam to Orange's home country, France. Play around with the "country select" screen here - maybe I've missed an even higher one.

Let's put that in perspective. It's cheaper to use a damn satellite connection. Or get a long-haul flight's worth of WiFi . Maybe I should do my email & browsing on the plane at 35000ft altitude rather than on the ground when I arrive.

Vodafone is a little better. They have some data roaming tariffs as "low" as £4.11 ($7) per MB, as long as you roam (and stay connected) to the right foreign operator. Wow. Or else it's back to £10/MB again.

T-Mobile's international roaming is at least simple at £7.50/MB for anywhere.

On average, maybe O2 is the "least worst".

The bottom line? Looks like I'm going to be signing up for WiFi hotspots a lot. Or using Internet cafes.

And waiting to churn to the first WiMAX / WiBro / Flash-OFDM / UMTS-TDD provider that has sensible roaming arrangements.

And I'm also wondering whether any of this could possibly be classed as "anticompetitive" and worthy of investigation by regulators. Any combative lawyers out there fancy pitching this to Ofcom or the European Commission?


Anonymous said...

sounds like you should take a laptiop on the road and use the cell phone for making calls......

marty mouse said...

Too right Dean! In France last month I sent 1 email and received 3 emails (each with about 3Mb of attachments -- not uncommon these days). This one session cost me £120. That was on Orange, the same as my home network. Why don't the networks implement tiered (and capped) tariffs based on daily usage?

Tony said...

Try Ireland, mate. You simply can't get bundles. Walled garden on Three, 2c per KB on Vodafone (yes, per Kilobyte - that's €20 or about £13 per Megabyte) and 1c on O2. Not only that, but they can't guarantee any quality of service, and the patchy 3G coverage means that if you're doing anything meaningful, let alone data rich (say, reading a page from the Guardian with all the graphics it has) it can take forever. So you're paying Vodafone to download adverts from someone else's web page. I know there's ways around it, but behaviours on the web proper should be translatable...and while I'm on, did you hear the one about roaming near the border with Northern Ireland? You could get 'pinched' by a Vodafone mast in the North, and end up paying ten times what you should be paying...that's a hoot, that one.

Susan said...

Does anyone know what the *actual* cost of a mobile phone call costs the provider, eg Vodafone, Orange etc.
My phone was stolen and (as an infrequent user it was a few days before I noticed it had gone) the call charges during that time have reached over GBP2000 (ouch!!). I am trying to get Vodafone to reduce these charges and it would be a helpful argument if I knew exactly what the *real* cost of a call was - not the tariff charged to the user?

Anonymous said...

Hello : I thought I was being ripped off by my SP in South Africa when I got charged R2 (about 18pence) per megabyte for 3G data. However, on reflection, it looks like this is more than reasonable. My roaming charges, if I stay on the right networks, is about R15 (about 1 pound 10p) while being in the UK. Maybe the answer is to use a South African SP as your SP when using data?!