Review: Reduced roaming charges have a catch

Stephen Bell test drives TravelSIM, an alternative to traditional mobile roaming, while on assignment in Australia

The outcome of the joint investigation by the New Zealand and Australian governments into trans-Tasman mobile roaming won't be known until early 2012.

In the meantime, travelllers to Australia may seek alternative mobile services. A new service called TravelSIM, which promises to reduce roaming charges by 75 percent, was recently launched in New Zealand. The TravelSIM service has been offered in Australia for four years and in Europe since 1998 and the company claims it has more than 1.5 million customers in 190 countries.

Computerworld journalist Stephen Bell tried out the TravelSIM on a recent business trip to Melbourne, here is his first-hand account of what the experience.

A customer buys a SIM for $49.95 and inserts it into the phone in place of their normal SIM. Next comes an activation process, conducted through the phone or on TravelSIM’s website. This is where it came unstuck for me.

I phoned from the airport lounge just before my flight was announced – rashly assuming the transaction would take only a minute or two. The operator asked for my surname, there was a brief pause and he said that name wasn’t on their database.

Since the card was originally supplied to editor Sarah Putt, I gave her name. He then told me I had to supply an email address – I wonder why that wasn’t requested to begin with? Eventually, on request, I read out the 11-digit SIM number. The operator put me on hold for about two minutes and on return said the SIM had already been activated, but the account had no funds in it.

“So how do I top up the funds?” I asked. “I’ll have to look that up in the manual,” he replied. While he was looking, the last call for my flight came and I had to disconnect.

On arrival in Sydney I tried the website, Setting up an account is straightforward. I was asked to activate the SIM – suggesting the operator was wrong. The account contained the starter amount of $US5 that is bundled into the price.

I chose a top-up amount of $NZ25, keyed my credit card number and the transaction appeared to be accepted. In the next spare moment I phoned home. This involves dialling the number in usual international format, then waiting for a call back from the TravelSIM robot and a connection. After a little over five minutes, the call was terminated; suspecting an accidental disconnection, I dialled back in and got the peremptory text message “no funds”.

Exploring the website again, I saw the $NZ25 was listed as “top up pending” and was unusable.

One point in TravelSIM’s favour; I didn’t have to phone them to inquire about the “pending” note; they called while I had the phone switched off, and left a message asking whether I was having difficulties.

By the time we made contact, I was back in New Zealand. It turns out that when a customer first authorises the payment it goes into the “pending” slot and a further button must be clicked to “apply” the amount. Nowhere can I find this explained in the documentation or on the website.

Several days later the record of the one successful call showed up on the site; it cost $NZ4.53, but the duration is shown as “N/A”. If it was only five or six minutes that doesn’t seem like a great saving, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and report back on a more substantive trial later.

Most inconveniently, people who want to call you from New Zealand when you have the TravelSIM chip in your phone have to dial an 0800 number and, on request, enter the 11-digit SIM number. Dialling into your regular number takes the caller to your voicemail service. So you might miss vital calls and frustrate incoming callers for the sake of saving money. Or else you keep having to swap SIMs.

Now I have ironed out the snags, I (or someone else at Computerworld) can use up some of that $25 on the next trip overseas.

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