How mobile networks flunked my summer roaming spend

Antiquated billing systems and inadequate demand forecasting have cost O2 and Vodafone my roaming business this summer and hammered a further nail into the coffin of whatever scant vestige of customer goodwill they had left.

O2 and Vodafone could each have made an extra $100 or more from me this summer and doubtless from hundreds, maybe thousands of other travelers. But their antiquated billing systems and inadequate demand forecasting have cost them my business and hammered a further nail into the coffin of whatever scant vestige of customer goodwill they had left.

Let me start with O2, the holder of the UK iPhone monopoly (though soon to face Orange as a competitor, it's rumored). Data roaming charges are a punitive £6 ($10) per megabyte outside of Europe and a still-scandalous £3 ($5) per megabyte within the European Union. The only way to bring data roaming into barely palatable realms of affordability is to buy a 50MB 'bolt-on' package for £50 ($84) prior to traveling, thus reducing the cost to £1 ($1.67) per megabyte. Over the past year of iPhone ownership I've got used to activating the 50MB bolt-on in advance of journeys abroad and then canceling it once my trips are over. Perhaps misled by the name, I had started to imagine that it might be possible to add a further bolt-on mid-trip should I find myself approaching the 50MB tariff ceiling prematurely.

No such luck, I discovered, when I phoned up to activate data roaming for my family vacation this month. It turns out the 50MB is a monthly ration and, since I was phoning up several days after the start of my billing period, I could only secure a pro-rata 40MB of £1-per-megabyte data roaming for the current month. Furthermore (and at this point I understandably went up the wall into the poor call center agent's earpiece), since the 'bolt-on' had to be activated for a full monthly billing cycle, I would have to pay a full £50 charge for the following month (when I have no journeys abroad) before I could cancel it, thus jacking up the charge to an absurd £90 for a measly 40MB of data roaming while I was actually traveling.

After putting up with my extensive remonstrations, the agent got authority to waive next month's charge, but I was still left fuming at the total mismatch between what O2's no doubt hugely expensive billing system is able to handle and what I as a consumer actually need and want to do. This notion that there is a 50MB roaming entitlement that is spread across a billing period is clearly a programming artifact built into the phone company's billing system, and it has no relevance whatever to the actual international roaming needs of customers, who simply want a burst of roaming entitlement for each of their trips. If this had really been the 'bolt-on' that its name suggests, then I would have been able to simply phone up at any time and order as many as I need, even topping up while abroad.

Based on the usage I've seen, I would happily have bought two or three blocks of 50MB — and if the price were more reasonable, I would have enabled tethering and bulked up with a couple hundred megabytes. But O2 has not merely lost that business, it's made it impossible for me to purchase it. What sort of a way is that to run a commercial entity? Telecoms companies seem to believe they have superb customer service and world-class billing systems. They should stop believing what their CRM and billing systems vendors have been telling them. They've been sold an expensive litter of pups.

Vodafone stood to pick up my business at O2's expense. I discovered when I arrived at my vacation destination that all I had to do was to go into the nearest town, buy a pay-as-you-go data card to plug into my laptop, and I'd have all the roaming capability I'd need, at local data prices. I was all set to drop €100 or more to get myself set up, only to find when I got to the store that there were no more data modems available. "None left anywhere in Spain," the store clerk told me, with the next delivery due after my vacation was over. So Vodafone's inability to stock up enough to meet the demand caused by the outrageous and inflexible data roaming policies of its counterparts in other countries means that they have all ended up losing my business, along with any goodwill or respect. To think some people say that SaaS providers ought to learn about pricing from mobile phone companies — thankfully no one has suggested copying their ideas about roaming fees. The sooner these companies get wiped out by wi-fi and voip competitors, the better. They, their billing systems and their attitudes to customer service are an anachronism and an historic anamoly. [Posted from an Internet café at a cost of €2 for 50 minutes, with unlimited megabytes].