Like most international travellers in the Internet age, during our recent travel through Europe I was confronted by the ridiculous situation that exists for mobile data access.  By ridiculous I mean ridiculously expensive.

Telstra SMS warnings

Warnings from Telstra when a customer connects to a roaming network.

Look, don’t get me wrong: the technology that allows GSM/UMTS global roaming is pretty magical[1].  But it’s not exactly new!  It’s not like mobile networks are breaking new ground in how this should be done!  As I understand it, GSM was designed almost from day one to support the interconnection of networks in the manner that global roaming requires, so why are we consumers gouged so aggressively for it?

Telstra goes to great lengths to warn their customers about the high cost of data when they roam overseas.  Nice.  So let’s say I want to buy one of these International Roaming Data Packs—how much does that cost?  On Telstra’s website I find the answer: in fact I find several answers, since it would be unreasonable to expect one simple, easy-to-budget rate from a telephone company.

The cheapest data pack is A$29, which gets you the princely total of—wait for it…

20MB of data.

Wait, what…?

Twenty megabytes?!?!?

Packs range all the way up to 2GB, which costs an unbelievable A$1800.  I have a Telstra mobile broadband service which costs around A$39 per month and has a monthly allowance of 3GB—that comparison puts the roaming data rate at almost 700% more expensive!

The kickers though are in the fine print:

If you use all of your data allowance, we will charge you 1.5 cents per kB you use which equates to $15.36 per MB.

This is the rate for roaming data if you don’t have a data pack.  An order of magnitude again more expensive than data in a data pack!  Let’s look at the SMS they sent though: “we’ll SMS you every 20MB of data” — which means, if you don’t have a data pack, you’ll get your first SMS alert once you’ve already spent A$307.20!  The next one is the absolute best, though:

Any unused data allowance will be forfeited at the end of the 30 day period.

Are you absolutely @#$%!$ kidding?!?!?  Seriously?!?  Let’s think this one through:

  • You have concocted an astronomically exorbitant rate for data usage
  • You’ve made me pay up-front for my expected use
  • If I get the estimate wrong, I’ll either pay through the nose at the casual usage rate until I decide if I want to buy another pack OR I’ll get no compensation of the up-front money I paid for data I didn’t end up using
  • You’re still collecting on my contract monthly plan fee, which includes domestic call and data allowances I can’t possibly use because I’m overseas!

The whole situation is unbelievable to me.  Unjustifiable.  If Douglas Adams was writing Life, The Universe, And Everything today I believe “bistromathics” would have instead been “phonemathics” (except that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well).  I can just imagine it:

“Just as Einstein observed that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it was realised that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s mobile phone’s movement through roaming zones.”

It’s only a problem because mobile technology is so embedded in our lives today.  We tweet, we post pictures, we e-mail, we navigate, we live connected in ways that we didn’t even ten, or five, years ago.  I know this, because I did without mobile data even as recently as 2009 (when I was in the US and China for a total of seven weeks).  The ironic thing is that we are most likely to want to do these sharing activities, such as checking in on Foursquare and sharing photos, when we are travelling—and even more so when we are in new and exotic places, such as a foreign land.

I call BS on the whole international roaming data scam.  I defy anyone from a telecommunications company to explain to me why it can be three orders of magnitude more expensive to access bits in a foreign country compared to accessing those same bits from home.  It is nothing more than a money gouging exercise, and I reckon I’ve got proof:

Amazon Whispernet.

I have a Kindle, for which I paid about A$100 when the local supermarket had a 25%-off sale.  It’s the 3G and Wi-Fi version, and I take it with me most places I travel.  I’ve had that Kindle in the USA, New Zealand, France, and of course here in Australia, and in every place I’ve had Whispernet come on line and I’ve been able to at least browse the Amazon store.  Now, if roaming data really did cost what mobile networks say it does, how does it make sense for Amazon to make Whispernet available internationally on my Australian Kindle?  I mean, if I browsed the Store for half an hour before buying a A$2.99 book (pretty-much exactly what I did last trip, in France), the transaction would have cost more than it made!  To me, Amazon Whispernet is the proof that there is minimal cost in roaming data and that we’re being taken for a ride.

Needless to say, my phone has Data Roaming disabled.  I became a free Wi-Fi junkie—one of those pitiful souls hopping from one café to the next looking for open access points.  It wasn’t too bad when we were in Paris and Montpellier, but before leaving for the back-blocks outside Toulouse and Bordeaux I knew we’d need a better solution.  In a Geant Casino store in Montpellier I happened across a prepaid 3G Wi-Fi access box from Orange for about 45€, which included 500MB of data valid for one month.  It came in handy too, thanks to the GPS unit in the car getting confused about the location of our hotel at La Pomarede and us having to use Google Maps to find the right way.

Come on mobile networks, get with it.  Stop pissing off your customers and forcing them to do cruel and unusual things when they travel.  Just charge reasonable rates.  You’ll get more business, and guess what—happy customers.  Well, happier.

[1] By magical I refer to Clarke‘s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.