Orange, part of France Telecom, is one of the largest mobile operators in the world. ZDNet UK recently caught up with the company's head of roaming, Yves Martin, the man in charge of its data-roaming pricing.
Data-roaming charges are a currently crucial issue because they affect ever-increasing numbers of people who take smartphones, tablets and laptops abroad.
Q: What is your opinion of the pricing levels that are currently in place for mobile data roaming?
A: Data roaming is something that is moving extremely fast. One big trend in our industry is the huge increase in smartphone penetration — in western Europe two years ago, less than 10 percent of people had smartphones. Nowadays it's between 70 and 80 percent penetration. That drives a lot of usages.
A typical use case is that an iPhone is released in June, people buy it in July and go swiftly on holidays, download a lot of YouTube [videos] and come back in August with a big bill shock. That was the story, unfortunately, in the past two years.
Here, clearly, the operators are learning, and we're trying to digest that as fast as we can. We agree the price that used to [apply] maybe even one year ago — which was a few euros per megabyte — was completely disconnected to the price you could find in the domestic market, which is a few cents per megabyte maximum. Here you have the collision between [different factors].
We as operators and the whole industry recognise that the price points we started with are not acceptable anymore, and also not consistent with our policy of subsidising smartphones more and more.
On the one side, operators try to maintain [average revenue per user] on the domestic level by giving more than the customer needs. A lot of operators have offered 1GB bundles at a very low price. This lowers the barrier to entry. People aren't using the full gigabyte. Statistically they are using 80MB to 100MB a month [but] average usage is increasing more and more.
So on one side, domestic pricing is extremely low and there are more congestion issues, in the sense that we have priced those bundles [according to] an incremental value, whereas we should take into account the long-term investment in our network. Right now, the mobile operators are a bit stuck into low domestic data prices.
On the other hand, the roaming price was extremely high, first of all because operators had to test the market. But there is also a slightly technical explanation behind that. It does [entail] some cost to connect and open routes in data — there is a fixed cost you need to recover at least with the first users. Every route costs €10,000 to €100,000 [£8,700 to £87,000]. You have around 700 operators [worldwide], so it's a lot of investment to open all those routes.
What do you mean by opening routes?
You interconnect, say, Orange UK with an operator in India. You need to allocate time to physically connect the two networks and also test the networks and ensure the billing and everything is going well. Also, there is investment in real-time billing. It is not that obvious that someone using data in India, for example, can be billed immediately, especially in pre-pay. We also need to make sure we have a proper anti-fraud mechanism in place, and for bill-shock prevention as well.
Economically, that is not the reason why it is so expensive, but the reason why it started at a more expensive price, and then the price need to lower.
The second technical reason is, when you build a network, you do so based on traffic assumptions, mainly on what your domestic user will use there. The telecoms industry is made in such a way that lots of things aren't predictable, and we made them predictable by 12-month contracts, knowing where people live, etc. Roaming adds an extra layer of complexity in the sense that people visiting your network are not recurring revenue. It's also relatively volatile revenue: as soon as you have a difficult economic or political situation, it goes down.
For example, right now if you look at all the Arab countries, you see roaming decreasing by 50 to 80 percent year-on-year in those countries.
Having said that, we as operators and the whole industry recognise that the price points we started with are not acceptable anymore, and also not consistent with our policy of subsidising smartphones more and more.
With smartphones, we are increasing the level of subsidy to be...
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