The criminal costs of mobile data

The criminal costs of mobile data

Summary: Roaming Rip-Offs: Compared to the price of fixed broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots, the costs of GPRS and 3G roaming are ridiculously excessive

TOPICS: Mobility

Imagine how different the Internet would be if it cost 24p just to look at Google's front page — with the first page of results costing as much again. How successful would Linux be if a single CD image cost £13,000? And iTunes would look very different if each track clocked in at £100 apiece. You wouldn't even think of synchronising your Exchange folders.

Yet these are the costs you have to pay today if you are rash enough to try to roam in the US with Orange and a GPRS phone. At £20 per megabyte and given a GPRS speed of 50kbps, that's £7.70 a minute — a call rate that echoes the worst of the monopoly practices of pre-liberalisation state telcos.

3G, where available, costs the same or more — but as it's up to ten times faster the per-minute rate is hiked accordingly. It is a mystery why the rates should be so high when the roaming costs to the telcos are practically no more than domestic calls. It is even more of a mystery when you consider that every alternative — including satellite communications — is cheaper. But then, perhaps it is only a mystery if you think like an engineer rather than a gangster.

Of course, not everyone charges £20 a megabyte. Some cost less than half that, meaning you could get that iTunes track for under fifty quid. But to people used to paying £20 for a month's worth of unlimited megabit broadband, such costs remain beyond belief — until you get the bill.

It's an instructive exercise to work out how much your normal online activity would cost if you were using GPRS abroad — or even at home, where costs of £3 per megabyte are not unknown. To work it out, first download and install Netmeter — a small but invaluable utility that shows instantaneous data throughput in both directions on your network interface, but more importantly collates statistics over days, weeks and months.

Netmeter's main Window

NetMeter main window

Figure A

Netmeter's totals window


Figure B 

When you've collected a bit of data, right click on the meter window and select Totals; from here you can pick a variety of reports and export them as comma separated variable files.

NetMeter reports will give you an accurate picture of how much data you have consumed. This instance had been running just a few seconds and already we haad racked up 350Kb of data transfer — which would have cost up to £6 on some mobile data tariffs.

You can then import the files into a spreadsheet — they're actually semicolon separated, so you may have to...

Topic: Mobility

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • I find it ironic that the pages outlining the rip off charges of roaming mobile internet sports numerous adverts from the actual company who's practice is being slammed.
  • My name is Roger Steare, the Orange customer "ripped-off" whilst using my 3G card in Europe. I'm a Business Ethics Consultant - I advise companies how to do the "right thing", not just what is profitable and legal. I invite all zdnet readers to visit and look up the company's Business Principles, Philosophy and Values. The challenge for Orange is to justify how thier data roaming charges meet these principles both in terms of being "open and honest" and in terms of providing customers with "value". Happy to correspond with any interested parties at
  • Sounds familiair. As long as enough people use it anyway. As long as there are no alternatives used in masses. As long as governments and others don't really do something about it. As long as enough (desicion making) people get confussed by all the FUD and lobbying out there. Etc, etc. There's no way you or anyone else is going to pay less for more (rather the opposite... but look at the cool new features!!! that cost even more and really don't amount to much).
  • If it were truly criminal it would be easier to stamp. The rates are certainly from a another world.

    The data volumes for which customers are charged, include the TCP/IP overhead. So if you download, say, 100kilobytes of user data, you may generate anything from 140 to 240 kilobytes of billable traffic.
  • Lets support Roger's case by asking Orange to reconsider. I did try to email Orange but can find no email address. They are happy to ring us though, just visit the following URL to ask for their attention:

  • no wonder the providers need to advertise with these costs going on -

    on the plus side it makes it handy for visiting their sites and checking out the costs!
  • As if there were such a thing as business ethics. Business is business, whatever the market will bear. If you don't want to pay, don't play. This is especially fun if the business is health care. Cheers to a post-capitalist future.
  • Given the auction frenzy by most of the telcos several years ago, I can't help thinking that this is the operators way of recouping the exorbitant cost of buying their 3G licence from the government!
  • Any company will charge what the market will pay for a product or service, not what it costs to provide. And comparing mobile data with broadband is somewhat meaningless - most operators 3G networks aren't configured to support thousands or even millions of people using mobile data, so it's in the networks interests to maximise revenues for the minimum traffic.

    In terms of comparisons, mobile data is where dial-up was in about 1995 - it would be interesting to compare mobile data charges with dial-up charges back then.

    I think the charges are crazy, but making meaningless comparisons doesn't help.
  • Business ethics has nothing to do with this. Its about a company offering a service at a certain price of which you choose to use. You dont want to pay don't use it. You have seen your behind because you didn't read the call charges and are trying to pin the blame elsewhere. Instead of crying about it try researching how much it costs to set up a multi million pound network, roaming licence agreements with foreign networks and research how much profit Orange actually make as a company in comparison to the number of customers they have. People make these judgements against companies and expect everything for nothing. They trade to make money, its what pays salaries, increases peoples investmemts on shares etc etc. Your very nieve to think that this is an ethical issue. I think its a red face issue and your the one standing there with the red face. Use your common sense, your supposed to be a business professional.
  • i've been hit HARD too by GENESIS GPRS AND THEIR VODAPHONE service. i was picking up the vodaphone uk signal and understood i was connected on that but lo and behold i have been charged on gprs.

    genesis really is not very roll-over for even a month of unused data mbs. a refund for a datcard promised and months later i'll have to chase them up again for the 3rd time!!!

    gprs roaming charges are indeed outrageous. i protest VERY VERYT strongly.
  • It may have nothing to do with business ethics, but the way that the information about rates is obscured and obfuscated devalues your criticsm of the unfortunate users. They appreciated that it would be more expensive, but not absurdly so.

    It hardly makes for an expanding market when we hear these stories. I have a simple pre-pay phone and I can assure you that whilst these stories and rates continue that's the way it will stay. I'm not going be part of the critical mass this technology needs.
  • We signed up for a mobile 3g last February 17 with Tmobile. I was told by the sales people, that it will costs us
  • Mobile data costs remain outrageously high. Are you planning any more coverage of this issue, Rupert?
  • SMS is far worse - 10p per 160 bytes! Convert that to the equivalent data transfer and that works out as
  • It's greed and nothing else. Roaming broadband should be as cheap as at home.
    Where there is a monopolised interest and collusion amongst providers theft will always be rife.
  • Well it's now 2008 ...

    and there hasn't been any r-e-a-l changes!

    Mobile roaming never mind data roaming charges are still absolute ripoffs.

    I have an answer for mobile roaming where my contact number when I am travelling is a UK Skype-In number and I forward my Skype to a local sim card number.

    I don't have answer to data roaming --- yet!