Spend a day in Auckland, use up 25Mb of data on your Optus mobile, and you'll be hit with a $500 bill. Someone over from the UK will clock up the equivalent of $7.39. Ever had the feeling you are being taken for a ride?
The government's response has been to get Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) — not the Communications Alliance who usually works on this sort of thing — to develop an International Mobile Roaming Industry Standard. The focus is on giving users information about charges on arrival in a new destination, offer the option not to accept the service, and provide tools to measure usage for those who choose to continue. Big deal.
The real challenge is to get those prices down, and that's only going to come from regional alliances. Optus might be horrendously expensive for data usage across the Tasman, but holiday in Bali, and you'll enjoy three days of unlimited data for just $27 thanks to the Bridge Alliance, which covers 10 countries in Asia).
It's the same deal in Europe, where the EC has limited the rates that carriers charge each other under a regulated Euro tariff. The deal stretches beyond data to cover voice calls. That's why someone on BT pays just $1.75 for a 5 minute phone call within France, whereas a holidaying Aussie on Vodafone would pay $12.32.
Sadly, it seems like regulators need to step-in to bring this about in this region, and that's unlikely to happen any time soon — although we can live in hope that NZ and Australian regulators will come to a shared solution eventually.
You can't help feeling, though, that it's not just an issue of phone companies getting a poor deal from international carriers. After all, Vodafone Australia must be able to get a good rate out of Vodafone in other parts of the world. It clearly has to be more to do with that old fashioned notion of getting away with what you can, irrespective of how much it alienates your customers.
The absolute price is also only a part of a bigger problem. The other issue is the complexity. Does anyone really understand the logic that sits behind these plans? I have spent rather too many hours trying to find the rates across a number of carriers and, whilst I've given it my best shot, frankly I am confused.
Almost certainly, phone companies will argue that the prices shown here can be bettered by signing up for some special deal, hidden in the depths of their website. For example, Vodafone Australia will generally only give you their best roaming rates if you sign up for their special Traveller plan. It's a special reward for those who have had the tenacity to go looking for it. Just to add to the confusion, whether you're better off opting-in for the Traveller plan depends on who you are calling. In Indonesia, for example, the standard rate within the country is $1.80 (plus 35c connection fee), versus $2.89 (plus 37c connection fee) on the Traveller plan. Opting-in is a good idea, unless you want to make a call to Australia, when you get slugged with $5.81 per minute (plus 35c connection fee). Confused? I think that's the idea.
Then there are the curious pricing anomalies. If you're a Telstra customer in Indonesia, Australia is the most expensive place to call. They specify $5.80 per minute to call home, but just $5.02 per minute to call anywhere else. Anywhere! The island of Svalbard in the Article Circle, perhaps?
The phone companies response to the ACMA inquiry talk of the need for "consumer awareness and transparency" (Vodafone) and "preventing bill shock" (Telstra). Codswallop! If they really have the interests of customers at heart, drop the price.