£100 for an iTunes download: The real cost of roaming

Roaming Rip-Offs: Mobile phone operators are stinging GPRS and 3G users with roaming charges of up to £20 a megabyte. That works out at up to £100 for a single iTunes download, and up to £5 just to check your tariff

An investigation by ZDNet UK has exposed the massive charges levied by mobile phone operators on users who download data when abroad.

Data services are increasingly being promoted by mobile phone operators; they let users connect to their corporate email and browse the Web even when they're away from a fixed Internet connection.

When used in the UK, these data services are usually covered by monthly subscriptions, but those who use data services on a pay-as-you-go basis can get a nasty surprise — and this can include contract customers when they travel abroad.

Charges of up to £20 per megabyte mean that it can cost 24p just to view Google's famously light front page over GPRS or 3G data services from abroad — and that is before users have even searched for the information they need and incurred a series of much higher charges as they navigate through destination pages.

A download of a single iTunes track could cost up to £100. One ZDNet UK reader found himself lumped with a bill for £769 for using Orange's data services in France and Germany to download around 80MB. The same usage in the UK would have cost under £10.

[? /*CMS poll(20003887) */ ?]Although Orange is the worst offender, all mobile phone networks charge disproportionately high rates for roaming.

The problem is compounded in many cases by a lack of clear information from the operators. Some users who use 3G data cards in their notebook PCs are not provided with any form of metering to tell them how much the services are costing in real time. In these cases, users will not know what they are being charged until they receive their bill, which can easily be six or seven weeks later — more than enough time for them to have run up even higher charges.

ZDNet UK asked the operators whether they would warn a user if they suddenly incurred huge costs due to using data services abroad, but at the time of posting this story none had responded.

ZDNet UK's investigation also found that...

...none of the operators make the roaming data charges easy to find on their sites. A search on Vodafone's site for its roaming charges used 545.2KB (including a download of the PDF file that held the pricing information) which would have cost over £5 from abroad at the company's standard charge of £10 per megabyte, or £3 if under a roaming deal with one of its partners. Had we not had Adobe Reader already installed then the 27.4MB download, which would have allowed us to view the PDF, could have cost over £270.

It is not just those using mobile data services while travelling abroad who face nasty shocks. ZDNet UK's technology editor Rupert Goodwins got stung by T-Mobile during a trip in the UK.

Goodwins takes up the story of what he considers to be his own Great Train Robbery: "It was too tempting. I'd just got a new phone with GPRS and Bluetooth, I had a Bluetoothed laptop and I was stuck on a train for five hours. Why not see how easy it was to get online and check out how usable GPRS would be? I'd previously used the GNER Wi-Fi service on the journey between London and Edinburgh, but thought the cost of a tenner for the trip was a bit much. I knew that mobile data over the phone was expensive, but a bit of browsing shouldn't break the bank."

"It took me about ten minutes to get the laptop online via the phone — there was a bit of messing about, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who's experienced with dial-up modems. It seemed quite fast as well; I tried some streaming audio from the BBC, which worked, and a few video clips, which didn't. The VPN to the office was reliable enough for me to check my email, and the usual round of blogs, news sites, Gmail and discussion forums was a great way to pass the time. I logged off after about an hour, having got a bit nervous of the charges. But temptation got the better of me, and I popped on and off throughout the rest of the journey."

"And that was the last I thought about it — until I got a data bill for £150."







Tariff Page

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GPRS (per MB)

£7.50 inc. VAT

£7.05 inc. VAT (Tier A countries)

£10.28 inc. VAT

£8 exc. VAT

GPRS (per MB) option

£5.29 inc. VAT (Tier B countries)

£5.88 inc. VAT (on preferred networks)

£20 exc. VAT in the US on non-business tariffs

3G (per MB)

£7.50 inc. VAT

£10.28 inc. VAT

£8 exc. VAT

3G (per MB) option

£5.88 inc. VAT (on preferred networks)