Asia's telecom operators have pointed to inter-operator tariff (IOT) agreements as the main cause of high data roaming costs, but stressed that they have taken measures to bring down prices and prevent customer "bill shocks".
StarHub's vice president of personal solutions, Joanna Chan, said data roaming is an "expensive service to provide" due to the costs the company has to bear when customers utilize other telcos' networks while overseas.
To mitigate costs, she told ZDNet Asia in her e-mail that the Singapore telco has inked "special arrangements" with roaming partners, to offer discounted data roaming access to customers when they use selected overseas mobile networks in 21 destinations in Asia, Europe and America.
StarHub customers can also choose to cap their data roaming charges at S$15 (US$11.87) when roaming with one of the operator's regional partners such as Hong Kong's Hutchinson Telecommunications, Indonesia's PT Indosat and Thailand's True Move, Chan added.
The Singapore service provider earlier this month launched a data roaming management tool called, Roam Manager, which allows users to retrieve information on their data usage on-the-go as well as cut off the service when they exceed their budget.
Rival Singapore-based mobile operator, M1, agreed with Chan's assessment.
Ivan Lim, M1's deputy director for corporate communications and investor relations, also pointed to its deals with international carriers as the primary contributor to the cost of providing data roaming services to customers.
Both M1 and StarHub could not comment on what other factors, other than tariff agreements, might push up data roaming charges.
Geographical, seasonal demand
Malaysia telco Celcom shed more light on the subject, noting that besides the IOT agreements carriers are subject to when customers use their partners' networks, there are also geographical considerations as well as festive seasons and other circumstances that are factored into data roaming prices.
"When our customers are travelling, they are out of our network and we can't control the costs. The IOT charges are very varied in different countries and between various network operators, which is the reason respective operators [in these geographies have] the bargaining power to determine the charges," said a Celcom spokesperson, adding that this is the "most important factor" that contributes to data roaming costs.
Fellow Malaysia-based carrier DiGi, too, recognized that many variables need to be considered in the provisioning of data roaming services, including determining the right price points.
"Broadly, the focus is on getting suitable roaming partners with ample [network] coverage and reasonable cost structure," the company's spokesperson told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.
Preventing bill shocks
The carriers' remarks come on the back of a ZDNet survey conducted in March 2011 that showed how mobile users in Asia were utilizing data roaming services overseas. Respondents indicated a need for operators to slash roaming charges by up to 80 percent to boost data roaming usage when subscribers travel.
Carrier initiatives aside, the Singapore government, through the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), earlier this month said operators in the country would have to observe a slew of new regulations aimed at protecting customers from high mobile bill charges.
For example, IDA has instructed operators to obtain explicit consent from mobile subscribers before providing any roaming services, including data roaming, which may currently be available by default. Telcos will have to comply with this measure come Jul. 1 this year.
Consumers will also be able to limit their data roaming usage in any single monthly bill cycle to no more than S$100 (US$79.15), IDA stated. From the first quarter of 2012, mobile operators will have to offer a free data roaming suspension service option that caps roaming usage at S$100.
"IDA expects that these measures will also help to reduce mobile 'bill shocks' and time-consuming disputes over charges, thus benefiting consumers, mobile operators and premium rate services providers in the long run," Leong Keng Thai, director-general of telecom and post at IDA, said in a media statement.
The IDA regulations follow similar legislations imposed by the European Union (EU). Enforced last March, the law requires telcos operating in EU countries to cap their data roaming charges to 50 euros (US$70.36) per month, unless subscribers state otherwise.
These developments are welcomed by Singapore-based Web developer Ng Yee Hong, who had suffered a bad experience after running up a substantial bill from data roaming while holidaying in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The bill came up to about S$50 (US$39.58) for two days of usage, Ng told ZDNet Asia, and professed that he did not know the charges before using the overseas data plan.
"I would have appreciated if my operator had informed me of the roaming charges then," he said. "Hopefully, it would be more proactive in informing me of the rates for overseas data roaming and how to activate or deactivate such services."
No regional standards
Regulations governing data roaming services, however, are not standardized across the Asia-Pacific region.
The Celcom spokesperson acknowledged that preventive measures for bill shock have not been regulated in Malaysia yet, but the operator is aware of the EU regulations. She added that as a "responsible telecommunications company", Celcom has implemented tools to prevent customers from having to pay exorbitant mobile bills.
"Customers are allowed to set a threshold on their credit limit before roaming," she explained. "When customers reach 80 percent of their usage, they will receive a notification via SMS alert and be in control of their data usage and spending."
M1, too, has similar services on hand to help customers better manage their data roaming usage. Lim said the company provides SMS alerts to alleviate user concern about high charges, and it is "currently reviewing the measures proposed by the [Singapore] government and the technicalities involved" to ensure compliance.