As any executive or remote worker caught with a massive phone bill on their return from overseas can tell you, global roaming costs for both voice and data can be mind-blowing. So how should business choose the right provider?
It is not unusual to hear horror stories about people returning from overseas to find they have clocked up hundreds of dollars in charges for using their mobiles or devices while on a holiday or business trip. And while most people these days would be aware that mobile roaming costs a fortune for voice, many are still not aware that data can also pack a wallop.
And it seems that the big Australian telcos are not doing too much to help the situation. Optus in particular has come in for criticism about its hugely expensive roaming costs, and has bowed to pressure recently and introduced an SMS service to alert travellers if they are nearing or going over their limits.
One person who has been closely following developments in the global roaming market for both voice and data is Dan Warne, deputy editor of the Australian Business Traveller website (www.ausbt.com.au). He has written a series of articles that shows just how big some of the charges can be, and nor has he held back on his criticism of what could be considered to be a massive rort.
According to Warne, business travellers in general aware that global roaming is expensive, but they may not be aware of just how many megabytes their devices use. “In an hour's usage on a laptop you can easily use 200MB,” he says. “At Optus' rates that's $4000, so if you are using your laptop throughout a trip it can be scary.”
Warne has done a breakdown of how much each telco charges for data, and Optus comes out the most expensive, at a whopping $20 per MB. Telstra charges $15 per MB and Vodafone $10.
“It is incredible the price difference – Vodafone is half the price of Optus – but it is still a completely unusable price,” he says. “They all offer discounted packages if you buy some data in advance, but even so the amount of data you can buy is so small that it's not really a useful service for business travellers.”
The main reason the charges for mobile roaming are so expensive, say the telcos, is that it is the international carrier that sets the price and the Australian telcos have to pay it. For Warne, however, that is a bit of a cop out.
“Obviously it is a commercial situation, but the Australian carriers could lobby harder for lower prices but I don't think they have had much incentive to do so because they obviously make a lot of money from global roaming," he says.
"I think too that if you look at Optus for example the price per megabyte is the same worldwide whereas the other telcos do have some rates that are cheaper in some countries, which tells me that Optus has been a bit lazy about the way that it prices the service, given that the uniform price is to cover all eventualities.
“(Optus does) have a global roaming discount scheme where you can get the price down to $9 per MB but even so that's still ridiculously expensive.”
Telstra offers a deal that covers the top 15 countries for business travellers and the pricing can come down to about $2 per MB. This is approaching being reasonable, Warne says, as you really are paying for the convenience. Telstra also offers two deals: one charging $29 per month with a data allowance of 10MB, and one at $160 per month with a data allowance of $60MB.
“But if you really want value for money you have to go and buy a prepaid SIM card in the destination country,” Warne says. “For a lot of people going on a short trip that's a bit hard to figure out so charging a premium is understandable, but the kind of premium that Optus is charging is ridiculous.”
For voice purposes, travellers can obviously buy a $2 SIM card at the destination country and pay local prices – the caller will be charged the international price – but this means you have to give out the new mobile number or forward your usual number to the new one.
“The other issue is that every different mobile network has a different APN (asset point name) for their data service and that is a server name in a practical sense,” Warne says. “You do have to dig into your phone and change the APN for each SIM card, so for a lot of people who aren't techie that can be a pain.”
There are many specialist global roaming SIM cards out there that need just one APN, but many of these offer cheaper voice calls but even more expensive data costs – some up to $50 per MB, Warne says. “There are some that are good value for data as well – the one that comes to mind is Tru SIM. Unfortunately they only cover the UK and the US at the moment but it is quite useful for many as a lot of Australians travel there.
“In Europe there are quite a lot of SIM cards that cover all of Europe. MaxRoam, Pep and abroadband – they all offer data at below $1 per MB.
“The Tru cards are sold in Australia so you can order them before you go. MaxRoam SIM cards you can order over the internet and they'll deliver it to you from Ireland. PEP – I think they can send you and the abroadband one is only sold within Europe so you have to get there first.”
So why can't our carriers do this to help their valued customers? As Warne points out, it comes down to a fundamental design issue with mobile networks.
“Global roaming is part of the GSM design where one carrier's customer can go on to another carrier's network on a casual basis. What the other SIM cards do that makes them cheaper is that some of them set up virtual mobile networks in a foreign country," he says.
"Like Virgin Mobile is a virtual mobile network on Optus, Tru for example sets up in the UK piggybacked, I think, to Vodafone. So your Tru Australia SIM card will come up saying the network is called Tru but in Australia they are actually a virtual mobile network for Optus and then in the UK it is with Vodafone.
“And that's how they can offer cheaper rates – they are actually operating a local network. The Australian carriers protests that they are not in the business of setting up mobile networks all over the world – they just participate in global roaming. But I still don't buy that because some of these global roaming SIM cards do offer much cheaper rates all over the world so there is obviously a lot more that Australian carriers could be doing.”