Roaming rip-offs set to continue

International mobile roaming rates won't drop anytime soon, admit industry players

Businesses can look forward to high and confusing roaming rates when employees access mobile voice and data services abroad for some time to come, experts said on Tuesday.

Companies and consumers have been charged up to £20 per MB for 3G and GPRS data downloads, meaning that it can cost £5 just to check an international tariff rate.

Mobile technology giant O2 said that the variation in international carrier rates would mean continuing rate unpredictability for businesses.

"In the UK we have a tariff that allows unlimited calls. International tariffs are more challenging, as we don't know where our costs are going to be. The costs for international roaming are difficult to predict because of different international carrier charges," said Mike Short, vice-president of research and development at O2.

O2 indicated that it was in negotiation with some European carriers to provide a fixed roaming rate.

"We are looking at fixed roaming prices for certain Western European destinations," said Short.

Communications regulator Ofcom has recognised that some users are caught out by international roaming rates, and announced on Tuesday that it has begun examining international mobile roaming fees.

"International roaming agreements are complex and wholesale charges between network operators can vary significantly. This has led to confusion among users at the wide range of prices they might pay. Although some operators now offer simpler, unified retail tariffs, some consumers still incur substantial mobile phone bills as a result of international roaming charges," said Ofcom in a statement.

However, this inquiry will not cover the cost of data services. As ZDNet UK reported late last year, one Orange customer was charged £800 after downloading just 80MB of data using a 3G card in France and Germany, but later lost his case to have the bill rescinded.

Mobile software vendor Intellisync said that the increasing mobility of workers and diversity of carriers is the root cause of the problem.

"The problem is the environment is changing. Mobile usage is increasingly dynamic, and tariff information changes depending on where you are in the world," said Rip Gerber, managing director for e-commerce at Intellisync.

"What we need is a message generation contractor to act in a consultative role, with the ability to give flexible pricing plans. They would be able to negotiate against different carriers," Gerber added.

One systems integrator agreed that businesses find roaming rates an issue, and suggested that artificial intelligence programs could automatically find and maintain the lowest available roaming fees.

"Businesses and IT haven't had visibility of mobile telephony costs. But now we can have associative intelligent agents on devices. Intelligent agents can lock down devices [to the most competitive roaming rate]," said Jaye Isherwood, product manager for mobile technologies at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.