The $1800 global roaming experiment

I couldn't help but smile when I read that the boss of the Telecom Users Association of New Zealand racked up an $1800 global roaming bill in 72 hours during a trip to Australia.

I couldn't help but smile when I read that the boss of the Telecom Users Association of New Zealand racked up an $1800 global roaming bill in 72 hours during a trip to Australia.

"Paul Brislen should have known better than to set himself up for such a charge," I thought. After all, he is a former editor of Computerworld and was, until recently, the public defender of Vodafone New Zealand, often on this very same topic of "bill shock".

But on his TUANZ blog, Brislen said that he'd been conducting an experiment to see what such charges would be, and that they'd turned out to be higher than expected. He outlined his usage:

I've deliberately carried on using my phone here in the way I do at home. Email, voice, text, Twitter. The odd website, but not too much because it's been a busy few days.

I didn't buy a local SIM. I haven't subscribed to any VoIP service. I just want to use my phone the way the phone companies want me to. My phone is designed to keep me connected and I like that. I like it a lot.

Brislen went on to say that the charges were 30,000 times more than he would normally pay for such services and the differential could not be justified.

I'm not saying roaming should be free — far from it. I value roaming and it's changed the way we can do business when travelling.

If the price were double, or even triple, heck even 10 times the normal price, I could justify using it. But when it's 5000 or 8000 or a whopping 30,000 times more expensive, it becomes [prohibitive]. How do we explain why a 3MB song will cost me a handful of cents to download at home but $60 to download in Australia?

Time for some action.

Indeed it is, but "bill shock" has been around for years, with countless numbers of "victims" being reported by the IT and mainstream media. As long ago as 2003, Brislen himself warned that it posed a risk to users of Xbox Live who might download too much from the internet.

More recently, wearing his Vodafone PR hat, Brislen called such roaming charges "stupidly expensive".

Indeed, TUANZ has long campaigned on the matter, leading to the ICT ministers of Australia and New Zealand to hold talks on the issue.

The subject has even been discussed by our prime ministers Julia Gillard and John Key.

ZDNet Australia ran a survey on global roaming charges, which showed that users are fed up with the high costs involved with using phones overseas.

But we still await action.

Now, telcos in New Zealand are developing a draft code of conduct with TUANZ, and are also warning members how to avoid such excessive charges.

However, the European Union could be showing the way. It has legislated that users face a maximum €50 a month data roaming charge within the union.

While I am usually reluctant for governments to intervene in the markets a similar limit could well prevent further episodes of "bill shock". I am sure there will still be some "profit" for the telco.

Which brings me to the other viable way to attack this issue: for a telco to lead the charge to genuine competition, potentially raking in customers by its boldness, as pointed out by my colleague Phil Dobbie.


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