Free mobile roaming in Southeast Asia 'overambitious'

Analysts say the intention to create a free mobile roaming zone is unlikely to happen given the lack of precedence and possible operator resistance as roaming fees are a source of revenue for them.

The aspiration to create a free mobile roaming zone in the Southeast Asian region is "overambitious", but decision-makers in the region can follow the European Union's (EU) example of introducing laws that would bring down roaming costs to be as cheap as domestic call charges, analysts say.

Indonesia's communication and information minister Tifatul Sembiring, for one, said in August he hoped to make Southeast Asia a free mobile roaming zone by 2014.

Singapore telco StarHub pointed out it was too premature to comment on the proposal's feasibility, as there was "no precedence for free roaming elsewhere in the world".

Telkom Indonesia was more optimistic and told ZDNet Asia that a free mobile roaming zone can be created, but this will "take some time" given that it would involve multiple parties such as cellular operators, international carriers, and government regulators.

Prakoso Santoso, investor relations at Telkom Indonesia, added there should be a "re-set" of connections rates among countries within the region. This can only be done after the various governments agree to settle the outstanding technical problems, he added, though he did not elaborate what these problems are.

However, Markus Steingrover, managing partner at Detecon Asia-Pacific, a research firm, said such an aim seems to be "overambitious" given that it has not been successfully done anywhere else in the world. Even countries in the EU, which follow a centralized regulatory approach on roaming, do not mandate free roaming, he highlighted.

There is also little impetus for operators in the region to make roaming free as there is immense profitability for them in providing international roaming services, said Paul Merry, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media.

Operators resistance
Agreeing, Nicole McCormick, senior analyst of telco strategy at Ovum, said: "While we like the theory of Asean free roaming for consumers, we believe this will be difficult and time-consuming to implement."

She added that there would likely be opposition to any such move from operators since they stand to lose revenue.

"We do not expect the free roaming zone for Asean countries to become a reality, if at all, for many years," she said, adding that Australia and New Zealand have been in talks for a similar bilateral move but have not been successful yet.

Lim May-ann, research director at Technology Research Project Corporate, said that would be some resistance from the industry but it would only be a matter of time before a new player offered to service for a competitive advantage.

"It's a blue ocean with lots of market interest and definitely business demand, which would scale up quickly--look how fast data messaging took off--in less than 2 years, we've seen its rise and the decline of SMS," she said.

Merry said a totally free model will not work in cases where there are costs involved for two operators to interconnect , as well as link up with an international transit provider should there be a need for this. He added the Indonesian minister's comments on creating a free mobile roaming zone may refer to the EU's approach of making regional roaming costs as low as domestic roaming fees.

The EU has enacted a series of legislations to achieve this goal and its decision to implement caps on roaming charges has been ongoing since 2005, he noted, adding the time taken to do so reveals the high level of resistance shown by the operators there.

"The legislation in the EU has forced operators to cut both retail and wholesale rates. It came after requests and exhortations by the EU to reduce roaming rates were roundly ignored by operators," the analyst said.

Southeast Asia should follow suit
Merry pointed out that what the EU is working toward can be replicated in Southeast Asia, too. "Global legislative bodies have used the EU approach as something of a blueprint for their own approach to roaming regulation so there is likely to be impetus behind driving down roaming costs in the Southeast Asia region," he said.

Steingroever suggest this can be done through multilateral agreements that each member state within the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) puts into the country's law within a certain pre-defined timeframe. The bilateral agreement between Singapore and Malaysia can be a starting point for this, he added.

In response to queries from ZDNet Asia, Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said it was open to working with other interest regulators in ASEAN, as well as other countires, to study the scope of possible cooperation to bring about more competitive roaming rates.

The regulator pointed out that talks to bring about lower roaming charges in the region have been taking place since 2006.

"In 2008, the Asean Telecommunications and IT Ministers (TELMIN) agreed that lowering intra-ASEAN mobile roaming charges would be one of the steps towards greater ASEAN integration," said an IDA spokesperson.

As for regulating the costs of international roaming, the managing partner said Asean can define a "glidepath" with which operators have to comply with in terms of how much of their roaming costs they have to lower each year.

Alternatively, countries can mandate operators to host mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) on their networks. The latter can then offer their international roaming services and bring more competition into the market to drive down prices, he added. "So when a user enters a foreign country, he will be asked if he wants to use the mobile network his phone is currently connected to, or if he wants to use one of the MVNO providers," Steingroever said.

There are also knock-on effects that lower mobile roaming rates will create, such as higher mobile data usage, Merry pointed out. Currently, users tend to turn off their mobile and data roaming functionalities when abroad to avoid bill shocks from inadvertent use. With low roaming fees, people would be more inclined to use data services and this gives operators the opportunity to generate premium revenues, he added.

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