A major challenge when travelling internationally is to remain connected without breaking the bank. In the second of a series of articles on travel technology, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK declares war on bill shock.
We may have defeated the monster of interconnect fees that have needlessly inflated cellular bills over the years, but there is another demon to be fought. It may affect fewer people but, for those it does, the effect is far more severe.
It is called roaming, and it represents a monumental assault on both the rights and the budgets of travellers. The worst offender is data use on a phone. The highest price one can pay for data as a South African user in this country is R2 per Megabyte of data downloaded or uploaded, and even that is exorbitant. For those who can afford it, buying a data bundle brings the price down to less than 10c per Megabyte.
Out of the country, however, if you forget to disable mobile data while roaming, the cost can shoot up to as much as R150 per Megabyte. To put that in context, using up a typical bundle costing around R200 for 1 Gigabyte in South Africa will suddenly cost R150 000. And no, that’s not a misprint.
The European Union has recognised the rapacious nature of such rates and dictated a cap of 20 Euro cents for mobile customers of operators within the EU, roaming within the EU. In other words, it doesn’t apply if you come from elsewhere. That means South Africans still have no protection there. The International Telecommunications Union has looked at the issue from a global perspective, but appears to lack the teeth to do much more than “look”.
Part of the problem is that roaming rates are based on bilateral agreements between networks, since there is no cross-border regulator that can enforce rates.
Of course, mobile operators themselves should be more vigorous in addressing the issue. After all, the likes of Vodafone and MTN have vast international networks that could contribute significantly to the debate. However, networks benefit hugely from customers of other networks roaming on their own networks, and have demonstrated little enthusiasm for killing the goose that lays this diamond egg.
In the same way, they fought tooth and nail against the cutting of interconnect fees in South Africa, arguing it would force them to increase rather than decrease the cost of calls. No one was buying the argument then and, half a dozen cost cuts later, the disingenuousness of the argument has been thoroughly exposed. Right now, we have the same kind of disingenuous arguments around roaming rates.
So, before providing a weapon in the fight against bill shock, let it be firmly stated: the current high international roaming rates for data are unjustifiable, indefensible, and unconscionable. The networks should expect no sympathy or understanding for their arguments justifying the rates. “Just do something about it,” is the message of the consumer.
The obvious cure for roaming data is to have a mobile Wi-FI device, commonly referred to as a Mi-Fi, although MiFi is in fact a brand name for a mobile Wi-FI device first manufactured by Novatel. In South Africa, most such devices are manufactured by Huawei, with ZTE and Alcatel also players.
One then needs to pick up a local data SIM card the moment one lands at a foreign airport. The problem is that, at many airports, no such option is available. In some cases, like at Heathrow in the UK, one can pick up incredibly cheap SIM offering unlimited data for a month at less than £20.
At JFK in New York, a more limited option can cost twice as much.
In the USA, the best current option is to visit a T-Mobile store and pay $40 for a SIM card that offers 1GB of data at 4G speeds, and then unlimited data at around 182 kbps. The store assistants will tell you that it’s not usable at that speed and you should pay twice as much for a bigger bundle, but the slower option is in fact quite effective for anything ranging from e-mail to WhatsApp and basic browsing on a phone.
In many countries, even better options are available, but in others the cost is prohibitive. The more countries one visits, the more complex the process becomes.
The best option is, on arrival at a foreign airport, hiring a Mi-Fi device that includes a data SIM card and data allowance, but this also depends on the luck of the airport draw. So far, I’ve found such options at reasonable prices only in Tokyo and San Francisco.
The ideal, of course, it to have an option that is set up even before one departs, and that works anywhere, across countries, cities, airports, transit lounges, and points between. And, fortunately, there is just such an option.
I was rescued on a recent trip through several countries by a device called PocketWifi, from South African company ExceMobile. It looks like a fat Mi-Fi, but its magic is on the inside. It contains no less than six SIM cards, each representing agreements with networks that cover almost every country in the world. One of them also acts as a master SIM through which the device is updated when needed.
The cost of usage may not seem low at first site: ranging from R199 to R349 per day, depending on the country, with 300MB of data included in the rate and a new bundle applied as one uses up each bundle.
High, maybe, but faced with the alternative, of up to R150 for 1 MB, it is not only viable, but is also an obvious solution.
On a recent brief trip that covered Germany and Poland, I incurred an ExecMobile bill of R996, which is high compared to my usual local bill. But the cost, had I been on mobile data roaming on the phone, would have been – hold your breath – R72 300 on MTN, and R73 472 on Vodacom.
Okay, breathe now. It’s okay. You’re going to be fine. You weren’t roaming.
Or were you?
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