Tackling the data roaming conundrum

Tackling the data roaming conundrum

Craig Whitney

Craig Whitney

Craig Whitney, managing director, UK and Ireland, at iPass, on the dirty secret of roaming fees.

Despite international roaming fees being one of the worst kept ‘dirty secrets’, barely a week goes by without a traveller being left red faced and empty-walleted by an astronomical phone bill.

It is a problem which has seen something of a renaissance with the increased use of smartphones and the tendency of users to consume vast amounts of data on the move. For businesses, roaming charges, alongside the cost of WiFi subscriptions, are some of the biggest drains on their mobility budget.

Roaming fees

When we think about roaming fees, it has always traditionally been in reference to voice calls; tales of pounds per minute being charged for long distance calls have been commonplace, and most travellers have been stung to some degree by a post-trip phone bill. Since 2007, regulation on roaming fees has been in force in the European Union, forcing carriers to lower their roaming charges across the 27-member zone. The regulation sets a price cap of €0.43 per minute for outgoing calls, and €0.19 per minute for incoming calls.


Not surprisingly, operators have tried desperately to overturn this cap on roaming fees; at the time the regulation was passed, the roaming market was worth €8.7 billion, a figure that has now dropped dramatically. The latest appeal from operators, including France Telecom’s Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica’s O2 and Vodafone, was rejected very recently by the European Court of Justice in the interest of protecting the market and consumers.


Ban the lot?

With voice roaming charges set to drop further (there has even been talk from the EU telecoms commissioner about abolishing roaming fees altogether by 2015) the focus is now set to fall firmly on data roaming.  A recent report from Cisco claims that mobile data traffic will grow at a compounded 40% year on year rate and this may be conservative.

The worst offenders by far are iPhone users who, according to research from Validas, consume on average five times more data than Blackberry users. The iPhone 4 with its high resolution 326 pixels per inch Retina display will only further increase the amount of data usage. Among iPass iPhone clients, iPass found that the 14% who use an iPad have sessions that are 12% longer than their iPhone and iPod Touch counterparts.

However, data used by smartphones is only a drop in the bucket. According to ABI Research in a February 2010 report,  mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 12 by 2014, to 9.7 exabytes, or 9.7 million terabytes,  from what it was in 2008, the iPhone’s first big year. But the iPhone won’t drive that growth; in fact, all smartphones, iPads, and the like together will account for just 10% of data usage. ABI expects 2014 to be the year that the majority of netbooks, smartbooks, and laptops will be sold with embedded 3G capabilities, so the explosive growth in their wireless data traffic will only get worse after 2014.


Blessing and curse

For the operators, this is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, much has been made of the creaking telecoms infrastructure and the strain being placed on it by increased data consumption; on the other hand, data represents a significant revenue stream, one which they are keen to protect.

The bad news for carriers is that measures are already being taken to deal with what are perceived as excessive data roaming fees. In the latest review of roaming fees, the European Union announced a cap on data charges of €50. Customers will only be able to exceed this cap if they explicitly agree to further charges.

While these changes are a step in the right direction, they still do not go far enough in terms of ensuring consumers and business users are fully protected from excessive mobility costs. A cap in itself does not equate to affordability, and the €1 per MB limit being implemented means the €50 cap will soon be reached by so called ‘power users’, particularly frequent business travellers.


Who decides?

Another potential issue is who decides whether the €50 cap can be exceeded. If the business has to agree this, does it do it on a per-case or per-user basis? For a mobile worker, this may be a significant issue if they are left without access to critical data while they wait for corporate approval to have the cap lifted. On the other hand, if the mobile user is able to decide, then what is to stop them simply choosing to lift the cap themselves, regardless of the costs they subsequently incur?

Perhaps the biggest effect this new data roaming legislation may bring about is simply drawing attention to the broader issue of how enterprises tackle the cost of mobility. IT departments wondering how these latest developments will affect them should realise that legislation like this alone is not enough. Ultimately these kind of measures will potentially help to curb the worst excesses of mobile workers that are left to roam unchecked, but enterprises that really want to rein in mobile costs must take control of this issue themselves.

Only by making sure that a range of connectivity options are available to users, and by getting proper insight into connectivity behaviour, can enterprises really control the costs associated with mobility.

iPass runs the largest wireless network, the most widely deployed client software, and the most comprehensive device platform support in the world – all running on a single open mobility service delivery platform. www.ipass.com

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