Mobile roaming rates 'will come down'

Using mobile data services abroad will eventually get cheaper, but industry body advises that, for now, users will have to cope with the high prices

The cost of accessing mobile data services when abroad will remain high for the foreseeable future but should eventually drop, according to the Mobile Data Association (MDA).

Mike Short, chairman of the MDA and vice-president of O2, said on Monday that it was understandable that the cost of using mobile phones in data applications abroad was variable and could be expensive.

"We are talking about the early days of using mobile technology data applications," Short said. "The prices will vary." He added that this situation had often arisen in the past in the communications business. "I remember when it cost 50p to phone someone in the '01' [Central London telephone] zone — it's a lot cheaper now."

Last week, ZDNet UK warned readers about the high cost of roaming after a reader inadvertently ran up a bill of £800 with Orange while using his mobile datacard in Germany and France. This worked out at £8 per megabyte.

Our research highlighted two major problems — the huge variation in the price-per-megabyte of downloading data on a mobile and the lack of warning given to users before they download.

In general, the mobile suppliers do not indicate the cost of downloading data while the user is actually downloading — a UK citizen who wants Web access while in France must visit his mobile operator’s Web site to check the roaming rate in France. For some countries this can be as much as 100 times the rate paid in the UK.

ZDNet UK asked the four UK vendors who sell data services if they routinely warned users about the higher rates abroad. We also asked them if they had a mechanism in place to warn users if their bill had suddenly grown, which could indicate they had fallen victim to high roaming rates.

Orange does not warn users other than by advising them on their Web site to check the rates. The company does not have a mechanism for warning users that their bill has accelerated out of normal usage rates.

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile said the company did tell its users the cost of roaming but said that "there is no mechanism to automatically inform customers when they go over a certain usage amount". Once again it is down to the user to check their usage themselves, but the T-Mobile data card does allow users to set their own data usage limits.

O2 and Vodafone have not yet responded to our questions, but O2’s Short did say that businesses should expect to pay a lot less than the advertised rates. "The rates for VPNs are much cheaper," he said.

Business users already enjoy cheaper rates. For example, business users of Orange datacards can expect to pay £8 a Megabyte anywhere in the world or less if they user a VPN. Domestic users will pay £10 a Megabyte anywhere in the world except the US and Canada where they will pay £20 a Megabyte.