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Friday, August 10, 2018

Thoughts on roaming, local SIM cards and eSIMs

I spend a large part of my life travelling, both for work and leisure. But while I find connectivity to be hugely important, I refuse to pay ludicrous per-MB data roaming prices.

So until a couple of years ago, this meant that I had a large collection of (mostly non-functioning) local mobile SIM cards I'd bought in various countries. Typically, I'd use them in a spare phone, so I could keep me normal phone on my home SIM to get inbound SMS or missed voice-call notifications. I'd also often use the second phone as a WiFi tether for my primary iPhone.

At one point I found old SIMs from the US, Singapore, Mozambique, Vanuatu, UAE and Australia in my wallet. In some places it was easy to get local SIMs, while in others it involved cumbersome registration with a passport or other documents. Places like India and Japan were a real pain, and I just didn't bother, relying on WiFi & an occasional extortionate SMS.

That has changed in recent years - and there are now multiple options for travellers:
  • Local SIMs are often easier to obtain. Booths at airports are well-practised at registering documents, sorting APN setting and so on, in a couple of minutes
  • In the EU, roaming prices have fallen progressively to zero - often including non-EU European countries as well. Various other groups of countries or regional operator groups have also created free-roaming zones.
  • Some operators offer customers flat-rate or even free roaming to other countries, such as T-Mobile US's free (but 2G-only) international data, or $5/day for capped LTE (link). I use Vodafone UK's £6/day "roam further" plan quite a lot, especially when visiting the US (link).
  • Many travellers can get dual-SIM phones, so they can easily switch between home and local SIMs without fiddling about with trays & pins. (There's no dual-SIM iPhone though. Grrrr. More on this later). 
  • Various companies (eg Truphone) offer global/roaming SIMs, and have hoped that frequent travellers would use these as their primary/only SIM. The problem with this is that they typically rely on MVNO relationships in each country, including the user's home market - which often means poorer data plans than can be bought domestically from the main MNOs. You also don't get to benefit from multi-play plans, bundled content and so forth. I'm also not entirely convinced that MVNO traffic always gets as well-treated as the host MNO's own customer data - and that's likely to get worse with 5G and network-slicing.
  • Some providers pitch global SIMs alongside rented/bought portable WiFI hotspots, such as TEP Wireless (link). The problem is that these often just cover the same countries as the better roaming plans from normal mobile operators. 
So... in July I went on holiday to the Cape Verde islands, off the coast of West Africa. Beautiful archipelago of 9 inhabited islands, with beaches, mountains, volcanoes, hiking trails and small villages nested in sheer-sided valleys. Neither Vodafone nor any of the travel-SIM companies seemed to cover either of its two main networks. So I went and bought an unlocked WiFi hotspot (from TP-Link), and hoped to get a local SIM on arrival, as I'd read a few suggestions it was possible.

It wasn't just possible, but remarkably easy. Walking through the arrivals door from customs at the airport, I was handed a free SIM by a representative of one of the operators (Unitel) within seconds. When I unwrapped it later in the day, I found it had 200MB of data included for free. No registration needed, no upfront payment, nothing. 3G network only, but that was fine to assure myself it worked OK. The next day I found a branded store & decided to stick with that network rather than check the other one (good marketing / customer acquisition strategy!) as the price-plans seemed fine. 

I paid €12 for 5GB of data, valid for a month. There was also a 7GB and maybe a 10 or 12GB one, but I wasn't planning on streaming video. In other words, €1 a day with about 500MB available per day, for normal mobile usage during my 11-day visit. The helpful lady in the shop sorted it all out for me, including temporarily switching my new SIM into her phone to send the setup / dataplan-purchase messages, which were tricky from a device with no keypad.

This compared to the roaming-advice SMS telling me that data would cost £0.60/MB [about €0.70]. In other words, roaming data was about 300x overpriced - quite astonishing, in 2018. And the mobile industry wonders why users have such little loyalty and respect.

(It's also worth noting that WiFi was ubiquitous in any hotel, cafe, restaurant or other places that visitors might go. There were telephone cable strung along all the valleys on poles, and decently-fast broadband was common. Given the moutainous topography, you could sometimes get WiFi more readily than cellular).

How would eSIM change things?

But this experience got me thinking about how the experience might be different in the coming era of eSIMs and remote-provisioning. Firstly, let's assume that one or both Cape Verdean operators actually had the requisite server-side gear for RSP. And let's assume that my future iPhone either has a multi-profile eSIM capability, or has dual removable/embedded SIM capability. (Remember, I still want to get my normal SMS's from my UK Vodafone number). Potentially, a future WiFi Hotspot could be eSIM-enabled too.

But then the question is, how does the user find out about the available networks, and the available plans on those networks? What's the user journey?

And there are lots of other questions too:
  • Would I get a popup alert when I switched my phone on after the flight? 
  • Would it give me menus for all the available plans or just a subset? 
  • Would I need to have signed up in advance, either with a local CV telco, or perhaps facilitated by Apple, Vodafone or a third party? 
  • When and how would I download the new profile? What data would that require me to send back (or what would be collected automatically?). 
  • Would it be easier to get an eSIM-capable WiFi device? 
  • But would that just be the same global MVNO providers who didn't have a Cape Verde relationship for roaming?
  • What happens if something goes wrong, or you need to buy more data? Can local stores give you any help, or top-ups?
Bottom line: this whole experience would likely have been worse with eSIM, not better. And probably more costly too. Maybe in a less unusual country, with MVNOs and better roaming partnerships, it could be much more slick.

But for most "normal" countries, I'll probably stick to the £6/day plan from Vodafone for ease, even if that's 5x overpriced and should really be £1-2/day. It's annoying, but basically the equivalent of  beer, and there's probably other ways I can save money faster when on a trip. That said, now I've got my new WiFi puck, I might switch back to SIMs sometimes though, if they're easy and available at the airport. I'll certainly take it along with me as a Plan B.