Thursday 18 January 2018

Business travel: what to do in Roam when trying to keep phone bills down

Despite EU promises to cut out roaming fees, using your business phone abroad remains an expensive luxury. Our technology editor looks at what Irish operators charge and how to save money when travelling for work

Roaming rates in Europe are currently capped at 20 cents per megabyte of data and 19 cents per calling minute.
Roaming rates in Europe are currently capped at 20 cents per megabyte of data and 19 cents per calling minute.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Travelling abroad for work is a commoditised business these days. Costs and prices are largely predictable, with one exception: mobile phone roaming. Despite a crackdown by the EU on roaming fees, it's still possible to spend hundreds of euro on simple phone activities within the space of a few days when abroad. And it's just not possible to constantly scramble for wifi hotspots to deflect the cost.

So which operators offer the best deals? And which ones will leave you hurting due to astronomical data charges?

Looking at the basic figures, Meteor is the most expensive option for business travellers to the US or Asia.

Even with structured add-ons that limit the damage of logging on to email or the web, it still costs more than using its larger domestic rivals.

Vodafone has more pre-set add-ons for foreign travel than its Irish rivals. It's well advised to take advantage of one of these before you leave, as you could face huge bills if you don't.

3 Ireland has a 'Three Like Home' structure that allows some bill-pay users to use a phone as one would in Ireland, but it's limited to a handful of European countries and Hong Kong.

In calculating the roaming tariffs displayed in our charts (opposite page), we assume the user has a bill pay account and have focused on the standard charges, which apply to everyone. (Where promotional deals or special add-ons are available, we have noted these in the footnotes.)

If data is the key issue, it is possible to buy a local sim card in most countries that will give you at least 1GB of data for a reasonable fee of €20 or so. (See panel on US sim cards.) But if you're sufficiently plugged in to email and alternative calling and texting services such as Messenger, Slack or WhatsApp, the local phone number won't matter one bit.

If you're used to 4G data browsing, most European and Western mobile networks have at least some 4G available. Some countries treat it as a premium, however.

In the US, 4G access is often allowed up to a cap, then reverting to slower 3G standards.

At present, EU roaming charges are capped at 20 cents per megabyte of data, 6 cents per text message and 19 cents per calling minute.

A partial roaming reduction will occur in April 2016, when rates will be reduced by 75pc. But in two years, they will be abolished within the EU altogether.

"From 15 June 2017, you can use your mobile device when travelling in the EU paying the same prices as at home," said the European Commission in its recent policy decision on the issue. "Any voice call, SMS and data session you make while travelling abroad in the EU will be deducted from that volume as if you were at home, with no extra charges."

This means that the new EU rules will also apply to 'bundled' data, text and calls.

The move should mean that Irish phone users will save an average of €100 per year on extra fees from using European mobile networks when doing business within the European Union.

But for business travellers who use a lot of data, there might be a catch.

There is to be 'fair use' exception to roaming limits. This could mean a limit to the amount of data, calls or texts you can use without roaming fees being added.

"There is a fair use safeguard," says the EU Commission. "Once that limit is reached while being abroad, a small basic fee can be charged… The Commission has been mandated to define the details of the fair use limit."

But there is no clarification yet on what that 'limit' might be.

This is important as some Irish deals give you lots of data (15GB), calls (10,000 minutes) and texts (50,000) on a post-pay plan. Does that mean you can use all of this when roaming? On any network you choose in the foreign EU country?

If not, how little of it can you actually use? 1GB? 10GB? Three weeks in any one roaming period?

This is crucial. If the EU is to decide that, in fact, only 1GB of data is to free from roaming charges, the whole thing could have limited impact.

"The rules prevent abusive uses," says the European Commission statement. "For example, if the customer buys a sim card in another EU country where domestic prices are lower to use it at home. or if the customer permanently stays abroad with a domestic subscription of his home country. This is not the usual use of roaming as the vast majority of Europeans experience it. These unusual behaviours are also called 'permanent roaming' and could have a negative impact on domestic prices, and ultimately on consumers."

Here, the rationale appears to be time, not data.

The key issue lies with who will influence decisions on 'fair use' exceptions. Mobile operators will lobby their governments furiously to restrict data limits in particular. They have done it before: roaming was due to be abolished this year, but the date was moved back after some EU governments intervened on behalf of mobile operators.

The bottom line is that it is still more expensive than it should be to use a phone outside Ireland. But it's gradually getting cheaper.

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