South African cellular subscribers that access email and the Internet using 3G while roaming abroad are often confronted by outrageous bills when they return. In some cases, customers are coming home to bills in the tens of thousands of Rands after making modest use of cellular data services in the US, Europe and Asia.
Says Mark Taylor, managing director of independent telecommunications service provider, Nashua Mobile: "Many of our customers face ‘bill shock’ when they come home after spending a couple of weeks overseas on business or holiday. Much to their surprise, they land up with a cellular data bill several times more expensive than their flights and accommodation.
"For example, MTN and Vodacom customers who were paying R15 - R25 per MB to roam on one of the French networks less than a year ago are now paying between R60 and R113 per MB for the same service."
One Nashua Mobile customer was slapped with a data bill of R15,000 after spending a few days in Europe. The hapless customer managed to incur a bill of R4,000 in a single day for downloading a mere 44 MB of data. Other customers have run up bills of R60,000 or more while roaming overseas.
“To put it in context, this amount of data equals downloading a couple of big emails with large PowerPoint presentations or spreadsheets attached, spending a little time browsing the Internet, and perhaps sending a few video clips or photos back home,” says Taylor.
The cost per MB of data reaches maximum costs of over R100 in the UK, R120 in the US, R118 in Japan, and R200 in China. What's more, service providers such as Nashua Mobile are not able to get billing data from the operators in real-time, which means that it cannot warn customers before they run up exorbitant data bills on overseas networks.
Says Taylor: "The question that must be asked is why the price of data services for customers roaming internationally has soared. Prices have gone up by a factor of four or more in a year, and subscribers can justifiably feel that they are being ripped off. We would like to know who is to blame: are international network operators making obscene margins off our subscribers? The local network operators charge overseas visitors as little as R25.00 per MB when they roam in South Africa.
Taylor says that South African cellular subscribers that plan to use data roaming while travelling abroad should get information about the costs they face before they leave. They should also look at other ways of accessing data services while abroad: for example, buying a prepaid SIM card when they arrive at their destination, or using Wi-Fi networks instead.
Many cellphones and laptops are now equipped with Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi networks are freely available in airports, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and other venues in most First World countries. In some cases, it may be cheaper to make a quick phone call or send an SMS than to send an email.
Concludes Taylor: "South African network operators have managed to drive the costs of their data services down to less than 20 cents per MB, depending on the package the customer is on. Customers should be aware that an affordable service they use routinely at home can cost them several hundred times more when they're abroad."