The consumer rights group Which has released a study of data-roaming rates for users of tablets such as the iPad, finding that prices abroad can be as much as a thousand times higher than those at home.
A gigabyte of 3G data use within the UK can cost as little as £7.50 a month, but the same level of usage while roaming abroad could cost thousands of pounds, Which said in a statement on Thursday. The group also pointed out that mobile calls made outside the EU, where prices are capped, can be up to 10 times more expensive than those made while roaming within the union.
"Regular phone use on a two-week holiday that would cost less than £40 in France would cost up to £190 in the US and around £300 from Russia," Which said. According to the group's chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith, frequent travellers could save money by "buying an upgrade from your operator that offers reduced international call costs".
"If you spend a lot of time in one country, it may be worth getting a local pay-as-you-go SIM card," Vicary-Smith said. "Until data costs come down, anyone considering their tablet or mobile for using the net abroad should steer well clear of 3G data roaming and use free Wi-Fi access where available instead."
Which's findings tally with those of ZDNet UK, which has conducted extensive research into the issue of data-roaming charges. The high retail charges for these services bear no relation to the actual cost of providing data-roaming services, which works out at around a penny per megabyte. Operators arrange wholesale agreements in secret, putting large mark-ups on the original costs, then heavily mark the prices up again to arrive at the retail price.
Until data costs come down, anyone considering their tablet or mobile for using the net abroad should steer well clear of 3G data roaming.– Peter Vicary-Smith, Which
Retail prices for data roaming are unregulated anywhere in the world, so operators can effectively charge what they like.
In the EU, the European Commission is about to introduce new rules to drive down data-roaming prices within the continent. These could take the form of retail prices caps, as have already been applied to voice and text roaming, or a structural separation of roaming from domestic contracts.
At a recent Brussels conference on data roaming, a Morgan Stanley analyst suggested big operators such as Vodafone could comfortably get rid of EU data-roaming premiums without losing much revenue. O2's regulatory chief also told ZDNet UK that the operator believes EU data-roaming prices will fall to parity with domestic rates by 2015.
ZDNet UK, whose readers have clearly indicated they feel pricing is far too high, is running a petition calling on operators to drastically cut their data-roaming charges around the world, not just within the EU.
Sign ZDNet UK's petition for fair data-roaming charges.