The Null Device

Data roaming blues

I am currently visiting Sweden for a few days; consequently, I now have a Swedish mobile phone number.

I have no plans to actually move to Sweden, and no current plans to return (though it's not unlikely that I will at some point), and so the +46 number I have will most probably sit idle, the SIM card in a drawer next to the German card I bought in Berlin last year (unlike that one, though, this card can be topped without having a local bank account in the country in question, making it more likely that I'll reuse it). But at the moment, the SIM card is in my iPhone, providing me with access to maps and similar services on demand, and my British SIM card is in my second phone (a Palm Treo 650, a piece of mid-oughts executive power-tech that looks ridiculously clunky these days and probably will be considered retro one of these decades).

The reason I went to the somewhat absurd extent of investing 99 Kr (almost exactly £9.90) in a foreign telephone number I will use for a few days is because of the unusable state of data roaming in 2011. While, in the EU at least, roaming charges on phone calls and text messages have come down, data still remains prohibitively expensive, with the foolhardy user who enables data roaming on their smartphone likely to drain their prepaid credit in minutes or, if on contract, be on the hook for thousands of pounds.

Things have improved slightly, though not enough to make using a smartphone abroad with one's own SIM card remotely economical, except for the super-rich and those with the deepest of expense accounts. For example, Vodafone (my UK carrier) now offers either 5Mb or 25Mb (depending on the country) of data abroad for £2 a day, with subsequent use being charged at £1 per megabyte. I tried using this when in Paris a few days ago, and found, to my chagrin, that the quota evaporated within ten minutes of idle time. Presumably Vodafone's offer is intended for users of something other than modern smartphones. Not quite sure what: perhaps those social-network featurephones marketed to teenagers with limited allowances?

I suspect that this has less to do with smartphones sucking up vast quantities of data and more to do with the way roaming data being metered being incompatible with the way smartphones use data. I imagine that what is happening is that, for billing purposes, one megabyte is one megabyte or part thereof, and the clock stops whenever the phone stops sending or receiving data for a period of time and/or when the phone connects to a different server. Which was probably fair enough a few years ago, when the much simpler phones did one thing at a time, and internet access on phones was an afterthought, a special mode added on after the fact. Today's smartphones, however, are entirely different beasts, being effectively UNIX-based computers designed to be permanently connected to the internet, and constantly sending and receiving small quantities of data, from notifications to location hints. Because this data is sent as internet packets, a premium-priced service on top of the mobile phone network, the partial megabytes soon stack up, and so does the bill.

With smartphones, we're living in The Future, but only in our home countries. There, we can pull down maps, check email, upload photos to the web, and even, particularly ironically, get spoken text translated into other languages. Elsewhere, we're still in the mid-2000s, forced to rely on pre-cached data and scrounge for open wireless access points (themselves an increasing scarcity, due to the three apocalyptic horsemen of terrorism, paedophilia and copyright infringement). Of course, one can, for a tenner, buy a new SIM card, and then freely use the same networks one would otherwise be paying through the nose for, at the cost of losing access to one's phone number for the duration. Which, all in all, is an absurd situation, and The Future won't officially arrive until this is resolved.

There are 9 comments on "Data roaming blues":

Posted by: 23Skidoo Mon May 2 18:35:50 2011

> 995 Kr (almost exactly £9.95)

Did you mean 95 Kr? 995 Kr is approx. £99.5.

Posted by: acb Mon May 2 21:34:22 2011

Sorry, it was 99Kr. (For some reason I must have thought I was in Iceland or somewhere.)

Posted by: tim from Radio Clash Mon May 2 21:44:24 2011

I went through that recently but it's even worse in the US - £7.50 per MB !!! and £1.20 min call rate...and with no EU I doubt any regulation to stop least in the EU you can get boltons or other sims, you can't even do that in the US. But the cost of data makes it untenable - when you really NEED Google maps (rather than it being a fancy doodah at home) you can't access them cos it costs too much. Grr.

And in the States according to the people in the Apple store the law says data plans have to be tied to the phone - so no SIMcards or alternatives. Not having a US credit card or bank account makes it hard too - endless topup cards for the local phone I bought for calls and texts.

Posted by: acb Mon May 2 23:11:28 2011

Data plans in the US are tied to the phone even for GSM (i.e., AT&T/T-Mobile) phones with SIM cards? That's bizarre.

Still, I could probably live with that (though not like it), if only data was cheap enough, without any overbilling scams, to make reasonable uses (i.e., maps, Google Translate, mobile messaging) painlessly usable for one of average means. (Which includes roaming.)

Posted by: Michael S. Tue May 3 23:57:20 2011

The situation with mobile data is baffling; only Amazon seems to have achieved something sensible with their Kindle. (Pretty much free 3G data everywhere, for the moment at least.) Most of the big companies operate in multiple countries, but you can't go to, say, Vodaphone and get a SIM that works in multiple countries, with no extra "roaming" charges. I can't think of any technological reason for this, and I struggle to see any marketing/smart pricing reason for it either.

Posted by: Greg Wed May 4 07:11:01 2011

I'm not sure how typical I am on this, but for me the only really compelling use-case for a smart-phone is traveling. When I'm in my home town I have Internet access most places, and commuting doesn't take long enough to worry. But when I'm overseas the Internet is often both extremely useful (maps, info, email etc) and yet difficult to get access, and I'm usually outdoors wandering around.

If the Telcos can fix this they might pick up a few more smart-phone customers.

Posted by: acb Wed May 4 15:12:59 2011

I suspect it has to do with the assumption that (a) mobile data customers are high-flying executives and the like, and (b) the amount you can soak them for the convenience of keeping the same phone number abroad outweighs any increased revenue from more customers of modest means buying smartphones.

The prognosis for change doesn't look good; as society becomes more unequal, some are saying that there is less money to be made in catering to the middle class and more to be made from luxury services (and security), but that's another discussion.

Posted by: ianw Sat May 14 00:11:42 2011

so I'm in NZ, first experience post-iPhone of 'roaming' (I'm on the 3 network, owned by Vodafone). The extra charges for calls & SMS are not taken off my call credit (that I won't be using, because I'm not in Australia) - they are 'extra'. And much as I thought data would happen (because I made the phonecall to switch roaming on. And incidentally this is rubbish because a simple code like #3476# or somesuch would do) it didn't. The call to connect data-roaming (which 3 would like to charge me for as per roaming calls to an Australia, though it's actually a call to India) informed me they would charge $20/MB. If I were to use data at half the rate I use it back home, that's $20000. No maps for me!

Posted by: ianw Sun May 15 23:13:56 2011

oops: what I meant to say in that 2nd-last sentence: if I were to use my phone as I normally do at home (a bit of e-mail, some notifications on, clicking on the occasional youtube someone's posted on FB) then in the 17 days I'll be away I'd chew through about a gigabyte, which they would consider worth $20000.