The criminal costs of mobile data

Roaming Rip-Offs: Compared to the price of fixed broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots, the costs of GPRS and 3G roaming are ridiculously excessive

Imagine how different the Internet would be if it cost 24p just to look at Google's front page — with the first page of results costing as much again. How successful would Linux be if a single CD image cost £13,000? And iTunes would look very different if each track clocked in at £100 apiece. You wouldn't even think of synchronising your Exchange folders.

Yet these are the costs you have to pay today if you are rash enough to try to roam in the US with Orange and a GPRS phone. At £20 per megabyte and given a GPRS speed of 50kbps, that's £7.70 a minute — a call rate that echoes the worst of the monopoly practices of pre-liberalisation state telcos.

3G, where available, costs the same or more — but as it's up to ten times faster the per-minute rate is hiked accordingly. It is a mystery why the rates should be so high when the roaming costs to the telcos are practically no more than domestic calls. It is even more of a mystery when you consider that every alternative — including satellite communications — is cheaper. But then, perhaps it is only a mystery if you think like an engineer rather than a gangster.

Of course, not everyone charges £20 a megabyte. Some cost less than half that, meaning you could get that iTunes track for under fifty quid. But to people used to paying £20 for a month's worth of unlimited megabit broadband, such costs remain beyond belief — until you get the bill.

It's an instructive exercise to work out how much your normal online activity would cost if you were using GPRS abroad — or even at home, where costs of £3 per megabyte are not unknown. To work it out, first download and install Netmeter — a small but invaluable utility that shows instantaneous data throughput in both directions on your network interface, but more importantly collates statistics over days, weeks and months.

Netmeter's main Window

NetMeter main window

Figure A

Netmeter's totals window

NetMeter2

Figure B 

When you've collected a bit of data, right click on the meter window and select Totals; from here you can pick a variety of reports and export them as comma separated variable files.

NetMeter reports will give you an accurate picture of how much data you have consumed. This instance had been running just a few seconds and already we haad racked up 350Kb of data transfer — which would have cost up to £6 on some mobile data tariffs.

You can then import the files into a spreadsheet — they're actually semicolon separated, so you may have to...

...specify that during the import — and do with them what you will. We suggest setting up a set of formulas that take into account any recurring monthly fixed bill and inclusive megabytes for each tariff you're interested in, then just sum the totals you've acquired, multiply them by the cost per megabyte and that's how much your usage would cost. If you can't quite get the figures up into the stratosphere, try BitTorrent or a couple of hours spent listening to streaming radio or watching online video.

Chances are, you won't need to try too hard. There are two main reasons why you'll use more data than you'd think. First, there's no easy way to know how much data will be loaded every time you click on a link, and speculative searching can easily bring up many hundreds of kilobytes of high resolution graphics per page. Then there's the sheer noise of modern network-aware applications. With probes for updates, new emails, IM contacts, VoIP calls and so on, a reasonably well equipped installation can be sending and receiving many tens of kilobytes a minute even if nothing's apparently happening — and if an auto-update is triggered, tens of megabytes can appear unbidden. If you can, leave your computer online for 24 hours without touching it and see how much data it consumes and produces. Even something that looks as if it's very low bandwidth, such as sending IM messages, carries a proportionally heavy overhead per message of between ten and twenty kilobytes. Or as the mobile operators prefer to think of it, 20p to 40p.

All of this is normally invisible because such behaviour has been designed to be unobtrusive on broadband, and indeed it normally doesn't matter. With a tariff charging £20 a megabyte, invisible equals inexcusable — and there's no easy way to turn off all this activity just because you're on a mobile data connection.

Even considered purely by itself, mobile data is scandalously expensive. Roaming costs border on the criminal. Compared to the price of fixed broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots — so cheap that pubs can afford to give away free — the cost of GPRS and 3G is beyond ridicule.