yARN: Think twice before roaming

The TIO report emphasis that perils of getting international data roaming turned on

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is dealing with fewer complaints, but some of them involve astounding amounts of money.

Before you accuse me of hyperbole, one person complained about a $147,908 bill that she apparently ran up due to international roaming charges while holidaying in Europe.

Speaking on Melbourne radio station 3AW, the Ombudsman said the dispute was settled when the carrier agreed to reduce the bill to $1400 or so. According to a TIO statement, the customer said "she had requested a special plan to make calls during a nine-week holiday to Europe," so it sounds as if the phone company was lucky to get as much out of her as it did.

The size of that bill suggests a good proportion of the charges related to data use as it is difficult - though not impossible - to make that many phone calls. Unless mobile data is switched off on the device, there are several ways a handset can consume data without the user's direct intervention. Among them are the automatic updating of apps, and busy email accounts. The problem is made worse when a carrier rounds up a 'session' to the nearest megabyte.

And even when people do know they are using mobile data, the non-technical types among us probably have little idea of how much they are using. For example, the last time I checked, opening the home page of one of our major newspapers involved a megabyte of data. No big deal when you're hooked up to a home ADSL connection with a quota in the hundreds of gigabytes, but an expensive exercise if you're being charged $15 per megabyte for mobile data.

You'd think that basic credit control procedures would prevent customers running up such large bills. If I had a customer who normally spent $50 per month but suddenly took $200-worth of goods or services on credit, I'd be pleased. But I'd start getting concerned if the number approached $500, and I wouldn't dream of extending $1000 credit without checking with the customer.

Telstra says it can't provide customers with real-time data usage on international roaming http://www.telstra.com.au/business-enterprise/business-products/mobiles/international-roaming/what-to-do/#tab-arrival . If that's because it doesn't get real-time billing information from its overseas peers, you'd have thought it would apply credit limits as soon as the charges start to climb and disable data roaming unless the customer explicitly agreed to a higher limit. (I'm not picking on Telstra, just using the company as an example.)

Another issue is that even if you pre-pay for an international roaming data pack, service doesn't cut out when you've used what you paid for - any excess use is charged at the $15 per megabyte rate, so you can still come home to a large bill if you're not careful.

Still, word seems to be getting around that international roaming is an expensive proposition, at least as evidenced by the drop in the number of complaints received by the TIO about such matters.

Most of the international travellers I know (other than those on their employers' business) either buy a local prepaid SIM when they arrive, or use an international SIM such as TravelSIM (more expensive, but has the advantages of knowing the phone number before you depart and working in multiple countries). Unless they're using a local SIM they tend to turn off mobile data completely and rely on Wi-Fi at hotels and other premises.

So if you're travelling overseas this summer, think at least twice before asking your carrier to turn on international roaming, and if you do, be especially careful about activating data roaming on your handset.

And have a safe and enjoyable trip!

More about: mobiles, Telstra, TravelSIM
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Tags: Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, data roaming, Telstra, Telecommunications
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