Charges for mobile email and web access from abroad are characterised by a complete lack of transparency. Tim Belfall thinks the European Commission should extend its roaming caps to mobile data as well as voice.
How many emails have you sent today? How many more will you send by the end of the day? It’s hard to imagine conducting business without everyone’s favourite method of instant, mass communication. Almost impossible to remember the days when sending documents took two days, and offices were redolent with the sound of fax machines squeaking and spewing forth endless reams of paper. As anyone whose system has gone down, even briefly, will confirm, losing email is like losing a limb.
Of course, one of the reasons that email has become so central to our working lives is that it is relatively cheap, if not free, to send messages all over the world. Unlike phones, faxes and snail mail, email is not constrained by budgets, or charged for by the second or the mile.
Unless, that is, you are using mobile email. In which case the deal changes completely.

Mobile email billing
Like mobile voice calls, charges are varied and frequently exorbitant – particularly when you travel abroad. But unlike voice charges, the costs for mobile data transfer from abroad are characterised by a complete lack of transparency. Where charges are made public they are complex and hard to comprehend.
Unlike voice calls, data transfer is charged according to the amount of data that is uploaded, and usually incurs a minimum usage charge. In the UK this is fairly straightforward. For example, one operator has a minimum data charge set at 1Kb or over which is charged at approximately £1/Mb. Uploading a 200Kb website would therefore cost 20 pence.
Try doing the same thing from Spain and the minimum charge grows to 200Kb and is charged at £8 per Mb. Simply accessing five different websites of 200Kb each costs the full £8.
But how is the minimum charge calculated? Does it restart every time you access a new website, or open a different email? Is it an ongoing charge for the duration of each online session? No-one really knows. A quick Google session can rapidly rack up the bills, and calculating precisely how much you are spending on transferring data from a PDA is much closer to guesswork than any business decision should be.
Which is why the European Commission’s endeavours to cap ‘roaming’ prices when it comes to voice calls do not go far enough. By concentrating on the legacy of voice roaming rather than SMS, MMS and mobile data they are ignoring a major growth area and source of business productivity in the future.
Gartner believes that by 2008, 41m corporate employees globally will spend at least one day a week teleworking and 100m will work from home at least one day a month.
And it’s obvious why: mobile email enables remote workers to stay in touch with colleagues and customers while away from the office. They can send and receive documents remotely from their phones, check their calendars from their laptops, or even keep their address books up to date on a PDA – all features that enhance productivity. Mobile email is not just reserved for senior management any more: any mobile worker can reap the benefit of using mobile email.
All of which represents a huge and growing profit centre for mobile phone operators, who are already making a substantial margin on each of these ‘roaming’ voice calls. Mobile phone operators have already threatened to pass on their potential loss from capped voice prices to other areas of their pricing structures. It seems more than likely that one of the areas that will see a bump in prices is data transfer.

"The European Commission’s endeavours to cap roaming prices do not go far enough …"
Shot in the foot
Yet, by doing this, mobile phone operators could be shooting themselves in the proverbial foot. Voice charges are already hampering profitability of the users – 80% of which are small businesses, who are also most likely to be users of mobile data transfer. Clearly they are paying the price for their modern, mobile and international outlook.
An Olympian struggle between the EC and the mobile operators over voice charges is already on the cards – both championing consumer rights, albeit with different levels of plausibility. While we wait for the outcome there are certain things business users can do to keep their voice and data charges down.
First of all ensure that the mobile email provider doesn’t tie you in to one single network so that you are not tied to the most obscure, labyrinthine pricing structure.
Secondly, users should ensure that their mobile email provider offers the best data compression levels – so that when vital documents are sent from Paris to Preston, the cost is minimal. Finally, any ‘push’ email should be disenabled to give you complete control over what you upload.
If the European Union is serious about creating a single financial market that allows the free flow of goods, services, capital and citizens across the continent, then it has to ensure that the costs of conducting international business are kept as low as possible. And that means encouraging the EC caps to mobile data as well as voice.
Tim Belfall is Chief Operating Officer of OpenHand Mobile, a software supplier that provides secure remote access to business applications. 
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