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International roaming charges rip-off: the ITU gets involved …

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has entered the debate about excessive international roaming charges by recommending measures that will improve consumer awareness and encourage operators…

It’s good news for customers, but there are limits to what the ITU can achieve. rayand

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has entered the debate about excessive international roaming charges by recommending measures that will improve consumer awareness and encourage operators to lower tariffs.

On September 14 in Geneva, ITU Secretary General Hamadoun I Touré said:

We recommend that governments and regulators explore ways to protect and empower consumers. Consumers need to be able to make their best choices among the array of options available to them in the rapidly evolving mobile marketplace.

Carriers should make information on international mobile services clearer and more transparent, and it should be easier for consumers to choose a network abroad that offers the best value.

In addition, alerts should be sent to consumers as they approach a certain cost limit for roaming, with a block placed on further usage unless authorised by the user.

The ITU is the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies and is committed to connecting people from all over the world. It allocates global radio spectrum, satellite orbits, develops the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and acts to improve worldwide access to information and communication technologies.

But importantly, the ITU cannot compel telecommunications operators to lower international roaming costs. Nonetheless, by releasing the above recommendations the ITU is encouraging regional operators and regulators to enter into cooperative agreements that would include lowering wholesale tariffs for international roaming calls, SMS and data.

A small step forward

In an earlier article on The Conversation I highlighted the excessive roaming charges between Australia and New Zealand as an example of the problem consumers faced when overseas.

More recently the federal communications minister Stephen Conroy stated the whole situation around mobile roaming was “frankly obscene” and has started developing a regional agreement with New Zealand to reduce roaming charges across the Tasman.

Senator Conroy said on ABC News 24’s Breakfast program on August 24:

We’re announcing two things today: we’re releasing a discussion paper which we’ve worked on for the last couple of years with the New Zealand government which is saying “we need to act now”.

We’ve done a study and what we found was, at the beginning of the study, the mark-up, the margin for international cost calls between here and New Zealand was 1,000%. With the spotlight on, it’s come down to 300% but that is not good enough.

I’m directing the Australian Communications and Media Authority to put in place a standard which will see mobile phone companies notifying their customers when they’re overseas of the cost of a call, the cost of sending a text, the cost of going online, and giving them the option to opt out.

Senator Conroy’s announcement can now be seen to reflect the new ITU recommendations for regional agreements and actions to force operators to provide more information to customers about costs being incurred while overseas.

World treaty

The first major agreement to tackle excessive international roaming charges was put in place in 2007 by the European Union (EU) which legislated to curb international roaming charges among member states. The EU reduced roaming costs further in July 2012 and indicated the process of roaming cost reduction would continue until costs were reduced to a minimum.

The rest of the world has yet to act but there is hope.

In December this year there will be a World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai.

The ITU has raised for discussion the possibility of including international roaming in the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The outcome would be roaming price transparency, immediate access to price information, greater competition and prices that are based on the actual costs incurred by the operator when providing the roaming service.

Done deal? No way

The only way the EU countries were able to achieve regulation of the international roaming charges was to legislate and force local operators to lower costs. The EU left nothing to chance and prescribed the roaming charges that EU operators must adhere to for EU consumers who take their phones with them around the EU.

Apart from the successful EU legislation no other international agreement or treaty has been put in place.

International telecommunication operators are expected to argue against any inclusion of international roaming regulation in the ITRs at WCIT-12. This is hardly to be unexpected – excessive international roaming charges have become a river of gold.

If a miracle should occur (and the ITU is not known for miracles as its members include international telecommunication companies that typically vote against anything not to their advantage) and international roaming regulation is added to the ITRs in a meaningful way at WCIT-12 then it can be expected that international telecommunication companies may ignore that section of the ITRs or argue for an implementation delay that could stretch out to a decade or more.

The way forward

The EU legislation to reduce excessive international roaming charges has been successful and Australia must follow the EU lead.

Senator Conroy needs to wrap up an agreement with New Zealand this year. Australia and New Zealand should pass legislation before the end of this year to regulate international roaming charges across the Tasman.

Last month Ovum research director David Kennedy was reported in SmartCompany as saying that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has expressed an interest to create an agreement similar to that in the EU:

That’s at a much earlier stage than these negotiations, but if that were to come to pass, the next step would be combining the agreement with one between Australia and New Zealand.

An agreement with the US and EU to regulate international roaming charges is not likely in the foreseeable future. Why? The world’s largest international telephone companies are located in the US and EU and for them international roaming charges remain a cash cow.

Will it make a difference?

The ITU action to highlight the international roaming problem is a positive step forward. But there are limits to what the ITU can achieve. Considerable effort is required by world governments to tackle excessive international roaming charges.

Senator Conroy can let our major international partners know of the Australian consumer’s outrage and the need for urgent action. Senator Conroy should start by calling his counterparts in the US and Europe, discussing the problem and publicly identifying a timetable for a joint Australian, US and EU treaty.

For now you should take care when travelling overseas and ensure you turn international roaming off before you leave. Think about purchasing a pre-paid SIM or phone when you arrive at your destination and look for free Wi-Fi hotspots on your travels.

For more information on how to ensure you don’t end up with bill shock after a holiday look at the international roaming guide and tips to prevent data roaming from ruining your holiday provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

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