Give the world’s telephone companies credit for building out a massive global wireless infrastructure. If you sit back and think about it, it’s still awesome and futuristic that we can connect from such small devices and do so much stuff for relatively little cost.But one of the areas where phone companies still deserve no respect is their international roaming racket. Using your phone in other countries still costs way too much. It’s unacceptable, and carriers now have an opportunity to build credibility by starting now to figure out a reasonable, affordable international roaming framework.
Venture capitalist Fred Wilson is the latest to go on the international roaming rant. In a post yesterday, he wondered why he’s able to purchase affordable wireless service from a U.S. carrier in the U.S. and a U.K. carrier in the U.K., but once he tries to use a U.S. carrier in the U.K., he begins gushing money for no good reason.
It’s true. The rates and fees are ridiculous. It can cost a lot of money for your phone just to ring in a foreign country, even if you don’t answer it. Forget about actually trying to use the internet for more than a few web pages.
Why is international roaming so expensive? Why is it such a racket? Gizmodo’s John Herrman wrote an excellent explainer earlier this year. The gist: International roaming is more complicated technically than you think, and carriers are disorganized. Basically, “international roaming is built on a shoddy patchwork of contracts, negotiated on a carrier-by-carrier basis, totally out of view.”
So, basically, it’s tricky. But so is running a wireless carrier in the first place. We refuse to accept that this is something that the world’s telecom giants can’t accomplish.
So, hey phone companies: Quit whining, quit making excuses, quit turning your best customers into suckers, and just fix it!
What’s their motivation? They are already making a nice chunk of change from the small percentage of business customers who are happy to expense exorbitant phone bills back to their companies. And most people won’t ever use international roaming anyway, so what’s the point of making the effort to make it easy?
Because more people — potentially a lot more people — would use international roaming if it weren’t so unreasonably expensive. If carriers can establish reasonable rates for voice and data roaming — obviously higher than domestic rates, but reasonable — people would use it.Carriers would make money because millions of their subscribers would use international roaming instead of a select few. (The same way they started to mint money off text messaging once they figured out that people wanted to be able to text their friends who used other carriers.) And people would be happy and not disgusted when they return home from an international trip and see their bill.
Using your mobile phone on a trip could become an obvious thing to do, and not something you dream about.
Phone companies need to remember that they are in the service business, not the torture business.
And we’ll put AT&T on the spot here, since it’s a GSM carrier (easy roaming) with a terrible image that needs repairing: How about doing the tricky work on this and then being able to say, Hey, we’re the guys who won’t screw you when you travel overseas. AT&T is big enough of a global telecom player that it could influence the others. And being able to use iPhones overseas for a reasonable fee might actually make some people feel good about being AT&T customers.
Being realistic, we don’t have much hope that this will happen immediately. But as 4G rolls out, as carriers forge their roaming agreements, they have an opportunity to do the right thing and make international roaming a reasonable (and still profitable) activity. Let’s see it happen.
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