Sunday 24 March 2019

Roaming still has a way to go

The iPhone XS starts to look like a very attractive proposition.
The iPhone XS starts to look like a very attractive proposition.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Thought we'd fixed mobile roaming? Not quite. While it has largely been sorted out in the EU, new reports suggest it may return after Brexit.

Even if that doesn't happen, it remains a bugbear for the thousands of business travellers who fly each week to the US, Middle East or Asia.

I'm reminded of this anytime I go to the US, from where I'm writing this column after attending the launch of the latest iPhones.

That launch may have given Ireland's business travellers a new way around extortionate, restrictive roaming costs.

Because the new iPhone XS has a feature that could spell trouble for mobile operators that depend on massive roaming charges.

The 5.8-inch flagship handset has incorporated a 'dual sim' status, meaning you can choose between two operators on one phone.

But unlike other phones which have had this for years, Apple's dual sim feature is an 'eSim'.

That means it's built in to the phone - you can buy a monthly prepaid plan on the phone without ever having to get the small plastic sim card from the operator to stick into it.

A number of operators are already on board, including T-Mobile in the US and EE in the UK.

In my experience, 'eSim' mobile data charges are very reasonable. I use them all the time for my iPad. In practice, I'm forced into it. Because when I travel to the US, I'm faced with a whole rigmarole over getting mobile data to my phone.

Using your phone as you would in an EU country is a non-starter. So Irish operators hitting you for around €60 per GB of data is offensive.

The average Irish business traveller has tough choices on roaming. Some Irish operators have opt-in plans. Vodafone, for example, offers 200MB of roaming data at a daily fee of €3. For old-fashioned voice and texting customers, this sounds reasonable. But for anyone who uses their phone in anything like a modern connected way, including its use for communication and entertainment when not working, it's far too little; it's like giving someone 30km worth of a daily petrol allowance for their car while visiting another country.

(Three and Eir don't offer anything better, by the way, but I haven't singled them out as they don't have as many business customers in Ireland as Vodafone.) So what are the other options?

A pre-paid sim card from a local operator is one that I've leaned on a lot in recent years. But in the US, it's quite expensive and can get bogged down in administration.

For example, the option I use is Verizon's (prepaid) Unlimited 4G data for $75. The reason I choose 'unlimited' is that 'limited' plans usually go to around 10GB. But unless you have access to decent wifi, that can be used up in a week.

A key thing to remember here is laptops. Without wifi, many people now use their smartphone as a mobile wifi hotspot. But doing so multiplies the data usage from your handset.

So on a recent week-long trip in the US, I used 14GB. I did it without once using video-intensive apps such as Netflix or YouTube. But the prepaid phone I was using acted as a wifi hotspot for my regular Irish smartphone and my laptop. This isn't an unusual use-case for a business traveller.

When looking for a US sim card, it's very hard to get something adequate that's much cheaper than $75.

T-Mobile has a mediocre offering of 2GB of data (in total) and intra-US calls and texts for $30. This is fine for a weekend, but will barely see you through a week if you use your device as a normal business person would.

Then there are custom roaming devices like SkyRoam. But that requires a hefty up-front fee of €149 unless you want the hassle of organising deliveries and returns. SkyRoam also says that its data is unlimited, whereas it's actually capped at 500MB per day or 15GB per month.

Over the last year, I've started to opt for a nicely-priced mobile data plan offered by T-Mobile for the iPad cellular. This iPad has had an eSim equivalent under its hood for over two years. Activating its 'mobile data' option (in settings) brings up a choice of US operators which the iPad can connect to as if it had a SIM card from that operator inside.

The option I've chosen twice this year is one from T-Mobile, offering 5GB of data for $10, with 6 months to use it.

5GB isn't enough for more than a few days, but it's the ease in topping up ($20 for 10GB is still a good deal) that makes it the one to get.

It's generally very good, although it comes with the obvious drawback that you need to bring your iPad around with you to check for messages or email. Additionally, the reception isn't always flawless: I've found that I sometimes get a single bar off reception, even in city areas.

Nevertheless, the underlying solution is a far more cost-efficient, And that's exactly why the 'dual sim', eSim technology on Apple's new iPhone XS promises to be so disruptive. If I could get a reasonable amount of data on my phone by just going into settings and flicking a switch, that's something I'd be happy to pay for.

Because T-Mobile is pitching this at a general market in the US - and not just travellers coming into the country - the prices are likely to be competitive. It's sure to be less than $75, anyway. And for me, that's an improvement.

Mobile operators still bake into their business model the hope that travellers will go over their limits and rack up a minimum of €50 to €100 of excess charges in roaming fees. Those travelling for work, it is calculated, will pay the charges without too much fuss as it's a refundable expense and a cost that is still considered 'normal' by financial controllers unaware of the huge drop in mobile plans over the last five years.

In this environment the iPhone XS starts to look like a very attractive proposition.

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