Hardly a week goes by without news of yet another international traveller returning from overseas only to discover they’ve run up a huge phone bill, in some cases in excess of R100 000, while roaming.
It’s well documented that data use, in particular, can lead to phone bills so large that the money could easily be used to buy a small car.
South Africans roaming to many international destinations will pay as much as R168 000/GB of data, compared to rates of as low as R99/GB at home. With modern smartphones constantly polling the network and downloading information such as e-mails and application updates automatically, it’s possible to run up a huge and possibly financially devastating phone bill even if you never take your phone out of your pocket while abroad.
Although local operators have signed partner roaming agreements with many international networks — offering significantly reduced but still expensive roaming fees — some consumers still continue to get caught out, especially by data charges.
Vodacom spokesman Richard Boorman says local mobile operators are at the mercy of international cellphone providers, which set the “inter-operator tariff” that then has to be passed on to consumers who roam abroad. “This accounts for the bulk of the cost the customer ultimately pays,” Boorman says, although local providers also incur costs, including interconnect and clearing house charges that also have to be passed on to roaming customers.
He says regulatory intervention in the European Union (EU), which has forced operators to reduce roaming fees in Europe, has prompted some EU operators to increase their charges to telecoms companies outside Europe to compensate for the loss of revenue. This has had the effect of pushing up roaming costs.
“The win-win situation is where we end up with better roaming rates for our customers and the other operator ends up with decent rates for its customers [when they’re in SA],” Boorman says. “The part that we have no control over is the mark-up that the other operator adds to our roaming rate. It’s quite common to see foreign operators mark up our wholesale rates considerably when charging their customers.”
To avoid roaming bill shock, many South Africans travelling abroad simply purchase a prepaid Sim card when they reach their destination. Not using an SA Sim when abroad is the surest way of not running up roaming charges and avoiding the risk of financial ruin.
And, because modern smartphones run Internet telephony applications like Skype, by purchasing a broadband-ready Sim card on arrival in a foreign country it is possible to remain in voice contact. Simply get your local mobile provider to redirect calls made to your mobile number to your Skype number. You’ll pay local call fees instead of expensive roaming rates when someone calls you. Plus you’ll be charged local rather than roaming rates for data. With Skype-out credit, it’s also possible to make cheap calls back home.
If the thought of purchasing a foreign Sim each time you visit a different country is logistically difficult, another option is to buy a global data Sim in SA that works in a range of countries.
One local company, ExecMobile, offers a data-only global Sim, either as a standalone card or in a pocket Wi-Fi router or data dongle. ExecMobile charges rates from R4,50/MB for roaming in more than 200 countries, including seven in Africa — that’s still expensive next to local data rates but it’s significantly less than normal roaming rates.
ExecMobile head Craig Lowe says the service offers cost control, bill alerts and user limits, meaning “it’s not possible to suffer bill shock”. For heavy data users, the company offers products for Europe and the US that cost R149/day for unlimited data access.
For some people, though, roaming is unavoidable. TechCentral spoke to SA’s two biggest mobile operators, Vodacom and MTN, and asked them what they recommend their customers do to avoid sky-high bills while roaming.
Vodacom recommends its clients use Vodafone Passport when in countries where the service is offered. “Customers can use their home rate, which allows them to talk longer for less,” the company says. “For example, a customer who is roaming on the Vodafone UK network with Vodafone Passport activated on a Talk 130 tariff plan can save up to 83% of what they would have had to pay.”
It also recommends its “Super Saver” roaming plan, where customers who roam on a Vodacom or Vodafone partner network will pay a data rate of R17,50/MB.
For customers who only want to use SMS, it offers the “SMS Roamer product”, where it costs R2,75 to send a text message. In African countries where Vodacom and Vodafone operate, the fee is R1,50/SMS.
For its part, MTN says there are several ways to save money while roaming. Like Vodacom, it offers a product called SMS Roamer, which switches off all voice and data capabilities and allows users to send and receive only text messages.
It also offers a product called iMail (not available to pay-as-you-go and top-up customers), which allows users to retrieve their voice messages on the Internet. The service requires registration on MTN’s website. International travellers can set their phones to redirect all incoming calls to voicemail.
A similar product, Voicemail Callback, allows MTN customers to have the voicemail system call them. “While overseas, you can dial the roaming shortcut code of *111*100#,” the company says. “Your voicemail will call you back, without you having to enter PIN codes and you pay only for receiving a call while roaming.”
The costs for receiving calls are lower than for making calls when roaming abroad, MTN explains. Again, Voicemail Callback is not available to pay-as-you-go and top-up customers.
MTN also recommends that customers make 100% sure they know what the data rates are in their country of destination and switch off all automatic updates on their phones and computers. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
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