Extortion on the waves

So, there I was in San Francisco, listening to Intel tell me all about the bright, spangley future of mobile. The keynotes were full of standard issue happy videos of happy young people doing happy young things with mobile devices, socially networking with video and the great taste of Internet.

So, there I was in San Francisco, listening to Intel tell me all about the bright, spangley future of mobile. The keynotes were full of standard issue happy videos of happy young people doing happy young things with mobile devices, socially networking with video and the great taste of Internet.

Wouldn't disbelieve a word of it, guv, except for one thing. I was sitting at the very epicentre of networked wireless technology, and I couldn't even send an instant message from my phone.

Technically, there was no problem. My phone, the constantly pleasing Android-based G1, has no difficulty in speaking American airwaves, and it is stuffed to the gills with software that tweets, chatters, displays moving pictures, geolocates and so on and so forth. The problem was me: for some reason, I dislike being held to ransom and having my money extorted. And with T-Mobile wanting to charge me £7.50 a megabyte for data, there is no other way to describe data roaming charges.

Seven pounds fifty. A megabyte. My iGoogle home page? 300Kbytes? That'll be two pounds fifty. Just to see my own home page. A fiver to check ZDNet UK's home page (naughty of us to have pictures, I know).

It gets worse, of course, when you consider what the extra costs to T-Mobile are for data roaming. Using the Internet, of course, the local operator just has to hook me up to its local connection point, which it can economically do for its own customers for the usual amounts. In my case, that local operator was T-Mobile – who will also sell me hotspot access via Wi-Fi in San Francisco for eight dollars a day, no particular data limit mentioned.

Extortion isn't too strong a word, especially when you consider how competition has been so carefully excluded from the equation. I tried to do the smart thing and buy an American pay-as-you-go data-only SIM, but my handset is locked to TMob and the local TMob shop assured me that such a thing was "impossible".

I know that many, if not most, companies now forbid data roaming for their employees, because the charges can easily run into thousands of pounds for even moderate use. I know that none of the UK people I talked to at IDF were using data roaming – although some had unlocked handsets that allowed the "impossible" task of using local SIMs for data. And these are the people who are directly involved in creating the exciting new world of mobile which, we are assured, will push technology for the people into ever greater heights of electrowonder.

It doesn't matter how good and cheap the technology is, if you can't afford to use it because of extortion. And it is doubly painful when you're abroad, which is exactly when you most need all those wonderful online information tools.

I have been at parties with mobile phone executives who openly laugh about the rip-off of data roaming charges. That left a very bad taste. What baffles me is whether they've ever made the calculation of how much money they don't make – or are there so many thousand-pound bills floating around that they don't want to bother to collect a hundred ten-pound bills instead?

But the current state of affairs is wrong – criminally, caustically, catastrophically wrong. It is poisoning the hopes of the mobile Internet, it is showing up the lack of international regulation (three cheers here for the EU, which is slowly enforcing sanity on the robber cartels), it is massively stupid in a way only telcos can be massively stupid. It is an enormous insult to customers, developers and manufacturers. It spits in the face of the future. If anyone can suggest a way to break this conspiracy down, I'm more than ready to hear it.

And if anyone from T-Mobile would like to explain to me why it is right to charge me five pounds to look at a single web page, I would love to hear that too. Bring it on.