“Roaming is expensive, and so when I travel, I switch off my phone,” a frequently travelling journalist said in Cape Town, South Africa where he was covering an international conference for his newspaper in Accra, Ghana.
There are about six billion mobile phone subscribers around the world, and it is possible for a subscriber who travels across borders or far afield to other countries of the world to receive and make calls on his or her phone without having to get a local provider’s SIM card. But the cost is high. The subscriber is charged both ways by the local network he or she is connected to and by the provider in the subscriber’s home country.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), when using a mobile phone or computer abroad, customers are generally connecting to a patchwork of national networks that are pieced together in partnerships among providers of mobile phone services in different countries. But the prices of these international connections (especially for data transmission) are usually much more than what is charged for the same service within a country, and some studies suggest they are higher than the actual costs involved.
The ITU is therefore, looking at possibilities of achieving something closer to a borderless world when it comes to the management and pricing of that connectivity?
“In other words, will we be able to “roam” on our mobiles from country to country, simply, easily and without experiencing “bill shock”?”
It also says, added to this, consumers do not normally have much of a choice about which network they join when abroad, and they rarely select a home network on the basis of what they might end up paying for roaming.
The ITU believes that improved international cooperation is needed to achieve effective solutions to these challenges and make bill shock a thing of the past.
As it meets in December 2012 to consider revising the ITRs, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) is where such cooperation could be strengthened, it says.
The ITU has indicated that because the situation is not only distressing for individual consumers; it could also be considered a barrier to international business and trade.
Therefore, it notes, the World Trade Organization is studying the matter, and has noted that pricing of telecommunications is an important signal to which authorities should pay attention when determining whether anti-competitive practices are affecting a market.
It stated that the OECD too has examined the issue, and its Council adopted a Recommendation in February 2012.
“It puts forward a non-binding set of measures that countries should consider, including the promotion of price awareness and greater transparency, as well as regulation of wholesale and retail prices for mobile roaming,” the ITU said.
The ITU’s Study Group 3 of the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) has drafted a Recommendation on mobile roaming rates that will be proposed for approval in September 2012, the UN telecoms agency said.
According to the ITU, a summary of the group’s work has been submitted to WTO. The draft says that ITU Member States “should explore ways to protect and empower consumers in determining their best choices among the array of options available to them in the rapidly evolving mobile marketplace.”
“This can be achieved through, for example, making information on international mobile services clearer and more transparent, and making it easier for consumers to choose a network abroad that offers the best value. In addition, alerts can be sent to consumers when they approach a certain cost limit for roaming, with a block placed on further usage unless a consumer authorizes it,” it added.
It is also advocating market-based solutions including through cultivating regional cooperation among operators and regulators, and encouraging them to reach agreements on lowering wholesale roaming tariffs.
“Possible regulatory measures are cited too, such as placing caps on prices charged to consumers for mobile roaming,” the ITU said.
The ITU cited some regions that have already begun to implement this kind of regime – notably the European Union, where the purpose of the single market is to eliminate trade barriers.
In line with this, the ITU noted, a series of price caps have been placed on roaming services since the EU Roaming Regulation was created in 2007.
“As from July 1, 2012, operators cannot charge more than 29 cents to make a phone call or 8 cents to receive one (a fall of about a third from the 2009 limits). And for the first time, a price cap has been set on data roaming — 70 cents per megabyte — with an automatic total price limit of EUR 50 (including for travel outside the EU), unless customers choose otherwise,” it said, adding that further reductions are being considered for the future.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi