Full price luxury cheaper than a phone call

International roaming charges need serious reform

I give you two choices. Close your eyes and imagine one of these two scenarios.

First, pretend you are Qantas, or Singapore Airlines. Your task is to transport me comfortably and safely from Auckland to Singapore. It will take you about 10 hours. You have to check me in, seat me and then blast me up to 36,000 feet.

After that you keep me fed, watered and entertained with the latest release movies until you lower me gently back to earth, re-unite me with my bags and send me happily off into the Singapore sunset. For that you get revenue of $504 for a heavily discounted rate, or $1039 at full fare.

Lets be charitable and assume I pay full fare. The journey takes exactly 10 hours, So you provide me with all that service for around $1.70 a minute.

So for the second choice, pretend you are Telecom or Vodafone. I’ve now landed in Singapore and I want to call home to check in and say “I’ve arrived”. Your task is to provide connectivity for my roaming cellphone, from Singapore back to Auckland. For that you must provide the service for a typical roaming rate of $5.85 a minute.

Hang on, I hear you say, this doesn’t stack up. Which service, at the prescribed price, would you rather provide? To fly from Auckland to Singapore with all the bells, whistles and bubbly, costs $1.70 a minute; to phone home once you get there costs three or four times that. Something is horribly wrong.

That’s one of a thousand examples of why users around the globe are ready to rebel at the price of international mobile roaming. Sure, on one level the “per minute” price comparison with flying is a diversion.

But on another, it puts some focus on the issue. If airlines can provide all that service for $1.70, how on earth can the mobile operators justify many times the “per minute” price just to hire out the connection?

I spent a few days recently in Brussels at a meeting of INTUG, the International Telecommunications Users Group. There were lots of items on the agenda. But roaming was the one that really drew the heat. And at the six-monthly APEC Telecommunications Working group meeting in Singapore, the same sentiments abounded. Users feel abused, ripped off and treated with contempt by mobile operators. It has to end, and it must.

Anomalies abound. In some parts of the world, a roamed call costs 20 times what a local subscriber would pay for the same service.

Twenty times! Go on, convince me that’s reasonable.

The European Community’s activities in the roaming market are to be commended. But they’re happening too slowly. We have to accelerate.

It’s a long, long while since the Commerce Commission was charged with looking into the roaming issue. TUANZ first raised it with the Commission in 2006, INTUG has worked on it since the late 1990s. A little relief has been found since, but frankly, not much.

Meanwhile, in Austria for example, a mobile roaming call “per minute” can exceed the cost of an equivalent voice call by a factor of about 90.

The bottom line is that in INTUG we have user groups and their members all over us seeking action. It’s a no brainer. New Zealand users, like our international counterparts, need and deserve remedial action.

Please, let’s stop talking and just get onto it.

Newman is CEO of the Telecommunications Users’ Association of New Zealand

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