The great data roaming rip-off - TechCentral

The great data roaming rip-off

“Bill shock” is a growing problem for SA travellers. They go overseas, and, before they know it, they’ve run up a bill of thousands of rand — without even making a phone call.

The problem is, as with roaming voice charges, the mobile operators impose exorbitant fees for roaming data — in some cases more than R100 000/GB! And with smartphones, which are constantly polling the network looking for updates to e-mail and other services, consumers can quickly run up monster-sized bills.

MTN, for instance, charges in minimum increments of 25KB. It warns in the small print on its website that smartphone users must disable all data features before they travel abroad.

“Failing to do so will result in you being charged the minimum billing increment each time your device connects to the mail server, even if no new mail is sent or received,” MTN says.

And those 25KB increments are worth their virtual weight in gold. Roaming in Europe, for instance, costs R2,70 per 25KB. That’s roughly R108/MB, or R108 000/GB. North America is even more expensive at R140 000/GB.

Vodacom and Cell C aren’t much different. Roaming rates in Europe are R128/MB, or R128 000/GB, on Vodacom.

However, Vodacom charges its subscribers in smaller, 10KB increments. Cell C’s billing increment varies, and, although it’s rates are harder to compare as they also vary by country, its data roaming rates are roughly in line with the high fees charged by the other two operators.

There are some deals available to help consumers reduce their roaming bills. Vodacom, for instance, offers a lower rate of R17,50/MB — that’s still roughly R17 500/GB — on other Vodafone-owned networks, though subscribers must remember to specify the Vodafone network manually when travelling.

Arthur Goldstuck

To put the rates in perspective, consider this: an MTN subscriber in New York using his 3G dongle will pay roughly R98 000 to download Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu Linux operating system, which is about 700MB. That’s more expensive than a new 1,4l Volkswagen CitiGolf.

Even browsing on a cellphone screen can be expensive. Many modern smartphones are data-hungry and can be used to access bandwidth-intensive sites like YouTube. Customers can easily get themselves into big trouble.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of technology research firm World Wide Worx, describes the high charges as “one of the most outrageous rip-offs in all of communication”.

The operators themselves say they have little control over the high fees — that they have to pass on the roaming rates that are imposed on them by international operators.

But SA’s operators are just as guilty as international players when charging foreign visitors extreme rates for both voice and data roaming. Though Vodafone customers from other countries will enjoy discounted (though still expensive) rates when roaming on Vodacom, subscribers from other networks can expect to pay through the nose.

So, tourists visiting the country for the World Cup can expect to receive back high bills if they use use data while roaming on SA networks.

Contract subscribers on Orange’s UK network, for instance, can expect to pay up to £8/MB (R89/MB) while roaming in SA. And AT&T customers in the US can expect to have to fork over up to US$19,50/MB (R151/MB).

Savvy travellers, of course, have already figured out there are much cheaper ways of going about it. Some choose to buy prepaid Sim cards in the countries they’re travelling to. Others make extensive use of Wi-Fi networks, which are fairly ubiquitous in developed countries.

But Goldstuck says the operators are taking advantage of consumers who don’t know better and of business users who need data access on their phones and are prepared to pay the high charges. “They’re exploiting people’s dependence on their data access,” Goldstuck says.

Though better informed users are able to bypass the data roaming charges”, many are “not aware of the cost implications or the alternatives”, he says.

Goldstuck says regulators worldwide, including the Independent Communications Authority of SA, ought to learn from the recent move by European Union regulators to slash voice and data roaming charges between Europe operators.  — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral


  1. Anonymous Coward on

    Nah, they won’t slash roaming costs… it’s too convenient for them to bill innocent customers like this.

  2. Yikes! It would be cheaper to get a contract/prepaid in the country of destination and makes calls like that. Rather that than get roasted alive!

  3. There is solution to prevent the bill shock due to an unpredictable access to the internet in roaming: Roaming Guard for Nokia Symbian S60 smartphones. Roaming Guard is useful for anyone who travels abroad, lives or works near a border, resides in national or regional roaming. Roaming Guard simply and reliably guards your data connections and prevents unpleasant surprises, like being presented an astronomical bill for data roaming. For a detailed description please visit

  4. Tech Reader on

    Oh Yes, i was a victim of this as well. with my N97 permanently polling for data updates. I travelled from SA to China with a Stop over in Dubai & Hong Kong.

    In just 10 days, my Bill for Data roaming was R6000 and odd rands. i just couldnt believe this as i was trying by all means to avoid making calls back to SA.

    Data roaming is too expensive.

  5. I am another “innocent” victim. Have roamed extensively since the networks began with never a billing problem. Got a new laptop and phone recently, these ran up a bill of more than R8000 in less than 48 hours in a neighbouring country (one has to update antivirus and vista after all?!). I was told roaming rates of R51/Mb on one and R102/Mb on another sister network are the norm.

  6. Data roaming is flawed due to the way GSM networks are connected. There is no incentive for prices to come down significantly. That’s why my company, Vircado came up with a service that reduces your iPhone/other smartphone’s insatiable thirst for data… you simply use less data and hence you pay much less. I’d love to hear what the readers here think about it.

  7. Just got back from London. I bought a 10 pound pay as go sim card for my iPhone. This enabled me to make 10 pounds worth of local UK calls, but also gave me 100Mb data for one month. Great for emails and web surfing.

    Otherwise whilst over in Europe I kept an eye out for for Wi-Fi spots local the nearest McDonalds.

    The data roaming in Europe was 4 pounds a Meg.

  8. The whole concept of “Data roaming” makes me laugh. Why would you go through such effort and expense to get an insanely-priced data service on a cramped little phone when these countries are generally flush with internet cafe’s, wi-fi hotspots and local cellular retailers?

    Are people really willing to pay that much for a convenience so readily available elsewhere?

    ~ Wogan

  9. Beware installing apps before you go — was playing a little with new Nokia Ovi and Ovi mail — then never used it because it does nothing the standard mail app doesn’t do, and it’s buggy, but doesn’t integrate with home screen. But didn’t uninstall it. Was in Eur for a trip, suddenly get roaming warnings (phew for that!) as Ovi Mail was trying to poll the mail server (even though several times I set it to “don’t sync automatically”.

    Data roaming is a really mixed blessing in a world of “chatty” applications looking for updates, etc.

    Particularly be careful of phone-based GPS, they suck down data given half a chance.

    Beware! Beware! Bewaaaaaaaaaare!

  10. I am not sure if I get this, Yes our data rates are high but the same is to be said about operators from over the Sea 🙂

    Our rates are not high and this is changing on a yearly basis. Data has never been a focus of mobile operators, but with the change in how we do business and customers requirements this will change in the comming years.

    The fact that I can still use data while in the UK is great, yes its costly but then I am still in contact

    Also if you are concerned about money, put a limit on your cellphone

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