Calling Home

I’ve been travelling a fair bit lately.  Although much of it has been within Australia, I’ve just spent the last few days in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, for the Sitech Champion Schools Conference, and I’m writing this from in the hotel foyer. New Zealand is starting to feel a bit like a second home lately… this is my fourth trip here in the past 12 months. Aussies and Kiwis have a friendly relationship. Aside from the obvious opportunity to take shots at each other over the cricket and the rugby, our two countries get along amicably well, and the trip across the Tasman is something that feels more like going interstate than international.  It’s easy to feel at home in NZ.

About 12 months ago I was here for last years Champion Schools Conference and some readers of this blog may remember that I came home to a $1000 phone bill for international roaming. That was a saga in itself, and much was said about it both here on the blog and on Twitter and Facebook.  While I should have known better, I was quite unprepared for such a minimal amount of data to be charged at such an exorbitant rate.  I was not a happy customer and I made sure my carrier knew about it.  As a result of that experience, and the subsequent whingefest I made of it, I learned two important lessons.  One, unless you’re prepared for huge roaming charges, do not allow your phone to roam when overseas. In the brouhaha that followed the bill I asked my carrier to completely disable international roaming for both data and voice, and insisted they unlock my phone so I could use an overseas SIM card when I was abroad. They complied and did both these things.  The second lesson was that if you make enough fuss about an outrageous bill you stand a much better chance of getting something done about it.  It took me numerous phone calls to customer service and plenty of persistence to get through to someone who could do something about it, but I eventually succeeded in getting the bill reduced to a reasonable amount.  Sometimes it pays to be the squeaky wheel, and to their credit, my carrier eventually just dropped the entire charge.

So, for the last few days, I’ve voluntarily chosen to cripple my iPhone by requesting my carrier not allow it to roam onto the New Zealand phone networks. The international roaming charges are hefty enough, and my need to make phone calls is not critical enough, that I figured I could live without telephony for a few days.  Besides, I figured that as long as I could get occasional access to wifi, that would be enough. Wifi would let me get to my email and other stuff, and I could make any phone calls using Skype or Fring, both of which work just fine on wifi.  Of course, I never anticipated that getting access to affordable, reliable wifi would be so ridiculously difficult in Lower Hutt, which is only 25 minutes outside Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.  The hotel advertised that it had wifi available, but despite paying for an NZ Telecom voucher it never seemed to work, and most times never even showed up in the list of available wifi access points. I went to Starbucks to pay for wifi there, but still had zero success in getting connected.  So for the past four days I’ve been mostly disconnected. There has been wifi at the conference of course, but I’ve usually been too busy to use it for my own personal needs.

But the real point of this blog post is to question why, in this day and age, is it so damn difficult to be connected while travelling.  Why is 3G connectivity so expensive once you roam away from your own country? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it should be free, but I’d love to see a bit more interoperability between networks and a few more strategic partnerships formed between the carriers so that staying connected while travelling was a bit more affordable and not so difficult.

To access the mobile web in Australia I pay $20/month for my phone to have 1GB, or just over 1000MB, of mobile data. The cost of data when I’m in some countries is charged at over $20 per Megabyte!  So, the cost of accessing the mobile internet when I’m in overseas can be 1000 times what I pay in Australia. I have no problem with paying a reasonable premium to access data over another carrier’s network, but 1000 times more? That’s just gouging!  I’d be willing to be charged a little extra to use the local carriers network, but I refuse to get ripped off like that, hence I turned off the roaming completely.  Sure, it was inconvenient not having access to phone and data while I was in NZ, and there was more than a couple of time when I wished I could make a quick call, but the phone companies can go and get stuffed if they think I’m willing to play their overpriced game.

Why should the cost of accessing the web cost so much just because you’re in another place. I mean, sending an email doesn’t cost you more depending on where you send it.  Once the bits that contain the message content are “in the pipeline”, it costs no more to route them next door or around the world. They just become part of the flow of electrons that circle the globe. The notion that it should cost more to send them further is just a hangover from the old days of telephony, when phone companies charged “long distance” rates for calls that went a bit further. The reasoning that it costs more to push data further is completely flawed.  It makes no difference how far you push binary bits through a network, the cost of doing it doesn’t really increase.  You remember when you sent your first email? Remember how liberating it felt when you found out that you were sending a message to whole other country, and it wasn’t costing you any more than sending it to your own suburb?  How could they do that? How could they afford to transport messages clear across the other side of the world and charge no more? Easy. Bits are free.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t solve my problem.  What about Plan B… get the phone unlocked and simply insert a local SIM card to access data on the local country’s network. Getting the iPhone unlocked by my carrier was not too difficult – I just asked and insisted that they do it, and told them that I was unwilling to be charged their inflated data roaming prices. Surprisingly, they complied immediately, although they now tell me that to finalise the unlocking process does require a complete system restore of my iPhone, something which is quite unreasonable. I sync my iPhone with my home iMac and I travel with my MacBook Pro, so the computer I have when travelling is not the one that contains the sync data for my iPhone. Even it it were, the notion that I need to do a complete system restore (which would involve erasing and restoring all my phone data) is plain ridiculous. 

On top of all of that is the near-impossibility of buying a short-term phone plan that offers both voice and data on the guest country’s network at a reasonable proce.  You would think that the concept of someone wanting a temporary local SIM while travelling would be so obvious, but almost no phone companies actually offers something like that. Crazy! I can’t imagine why they are choosing to be missing out on so much potential revenue from travellers.

So I want to know why it it is so difficult for phone companies to provide what seems like an obvious need in this hyperconnected world of ours… the ability to remain connected -at a reasonable price – to our telephony and data while travelling. The web is built on global standards. Data is data. Most voice calls are carried on VOIP anyway.  The methods for connecting to a network node – any network node – is no different no matter where you are in the world. There has to be a better solution than the current overpriced, under-delivering method of roaming onto another network and being charged through the nose for it.

Come on phone companies! Get your act together!

Image: ‘We are spirits in the material world

CC BY-SA 4.0 Calling Home by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

3 Replies to “Calling Home”

  1. You should try living here. I pay $50 a month for my 10BG capped home internet and I run out. Downloading a single, high quality, one hour movie is 1.5GB. Telecom is about to introduce TiVo which would suck your ordinary surfing requirements completely dry. We want it fast and without a cap.

    It’s never going to be ubiquitous when we have to go searching for reasonably priced plans and public access. Our local library has free internet but it is being monopolised by tourists phoning home and the locals find it hard to get a look in. Bring on the competition I say.

  2. Betcherboy a squeaky wheel?? I never would have believed it!!!
    Thanks for the update – your post from last year has me always asking people about their experience and recommendations – there is surprisingly little sound advice apart from abstinence!!
    We are off to USA soon (30th anniversary!!) and have been delighted to have the Optus iphone so easily unlocked – re-stocking the phone doesn’t seem such a big chore(what have I missed??).
    The plan, apart from free wi-fi is to buy that (elusive?) pre-paid voice and data SIM and make sure that when we insert the OZ SIM (pre set to roaming all data turned off – we find this is useful for text messages to regulars such as family (we never talk on it, but it is useful to make easy contact even for setting up Skype etc.)- (am I dreaming??). Will let you know how we go!!!

  3. Well well well… look at this story from today’s Sydney Morning Herald… Maybe we’re onto something here?

    Do not call home – well, not on your mobile
    April 8, 2010

    SICK of sky-high bills when you use your mobile phone overseas? You are not alone, and with the increasing use of the internet on phones, the bills are growing larger.

    The issue of big global roaming charges has made its way to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which has found tighter regulation on mobile phone carriers may be the answer.

    Each network negotiates access with overseas carriers and the home provider pays hefty fees to the foreign carrier – a charge that is passed on to consumers.

    But a report from the OECD, which includes most developed countries, proposes governments around the world agree to regulate the wholesale access charges to bring them closer to the actual cost of delivering the service.

    The report found prices to be ”unreasonably high” around the world, and blamed high wholesale charges, lack of competition and lack of consumer awareness of alternatives.

    It found more competition was not the answer, and instead said ”directly regulating roaming prices may be the only way to guarantee that consumers are not unreasonably charged”.

    Consumer groups have backed the idea, saying they have been advising people to not use their mobile abroad.

    ”There’s no question that there’s a massive margin that is going in someone’s pockets, and it’s not really for the cost of the calls,” said Teresa Corbin, deputy chief executive of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

    For many places and with many carriers, people were better off using their mobile phone only to receive messages. They should use a local phone card or buy a local SIM card to call back.

    Rosemary Sinclair, the managing director of the Australian Telecommunications Users Group, said data services drove bills up. In one case users were charged $20 per megabyte downloaded overseas: ”It’s a global problem, particularly with iPhones.”

    The industry in Australia says 75 per cent of the cost of roaming comes from the price charged by overseas operators.

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