September 24, 2002
GSM Roaming a la 2002: Why it's just a nuisance

Ahhh... mobile phone roaming. In theory a brilliant idea - especially for frequent travellers - offering a dial tone using the same mobile handset no matter where you go, enabling you to use your phone like if you were home.

Introduced with the Nordic NMT-450 system (later being used in other Northern European countries and the odd other country here and there) and later used by NMT 900, GSM was to be the first "global" system allowing roaming. Named simply the Global System for Mobile Phones (GSM), it is designed for interoperability across networks.

Why, then, do my frequently travelling friends, colleagues and myself carry two to three mobile phones when we travel?

Primarily it's cost: Networks are allowing themselves extremely generous margins on roaming calls (just like they are for SMS messaging, which really costs them close to nothing compared to a call). It's usually cheaper for us to buy a new (cheap) phone with a prepaid card to receive phone calls when working in a new country than it is to use a roaming GSM phone. The break-even often kicks in after weeks, not months... Think about that before making calls home when on holiday...(!)

Another reason for bringing an additional phone or two is the aforementioned SMS text messaging:

Constructing their roaming agreements, some operators have silently left out other, foreign operators from their lists of networks that can exchange text messages with their customers. Of course no notification to customers neither when signing up for the service nor when sending a "blackholed" message. The only way to find out whether one spesific GSM phone on one operator's network can send a message to another is trying - and frequently failing. For example, in France, customers of Bouyges Telecom and SFR can only send and receive messages to and from other French phones (or could .. last time I checked - possibly some international networks are possible, but in general not). Very practical, eh? Especially useful when trying to meet up with friends in a new city or sending texts from a new mobile phone in a new country.

Last but not least is another annoyance when roaming: whenever your phone switches roaming-operator (happens occationally when in a new country depending on operator's coverage and other factors (taking the train after flying into a new airport is a pain for this...)) you can expect one to three messages welcoming you to the new network, offering directory information and other bla bla. Fair enough one time, annoying the third and absolutely a pain in the ass the hundredth time... Best in class: Netherland's Telfort/O2 network sends out the welcome message only once. Ever. And they offer a daily, free message with news from your home country and weather forecast for Holland. Nice. French SFR offers roaming visitors (but not their own customers) free text messaging one hour per day. Baddies: Netherland's KPN Telecom keeps those welcome messages coming. Multiple times (one for "welcome to our network, your voice mail works like home", one for "call something-something for help to find restaurants, taxis etc while in Holland"). As I said; postentially useful one time; never again.

Needless to say, since the European mobile phone consotriums (like Orange and Vodaphone) fail to offer any "partner discount" when roaming with partnering networks in other countries, Telfort gets the profit off my roaming calls when in Holland.

Some sources:

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Additional info on cost:

"International roaming is a very difficult field, because of the lack of information. Tariffs are often very high, and finding information about them very complicated. What you pay is different from one country to another, it is different if you make a call or receive a call, and it is different depending on your tariff plan. More operators are now offering roaming with prepaid cards, often only to receive calls while abroad, and frequently at extremely high tariffs. Users are often unaware of these costs.

Test-Achats believes that international roaming tariffs should be very much lower. Users need to be much better informed about what they will have to pay. It also asks for better transparency. One possible solution, technically possible within the GSM standard, would be the display of the cost of a call in real-time; a simple means for the consumer to see the real cost."

Posted by: andersja on September 24, 2002 06:23 PM

I'm on Orange (UK) and when sending txts to other countries form within the UK they r kinda weird 'cos they say that u can't txt south africa on their website, but when you try it you acctually can, it's really weird.

Why don't you just get a SIM free phone and then buy a Pay As You go sim-card in each country you often go to or are staying in for a while? just buying a new sim will cost loads less than buying a new phone. you could do the same to mean you don't have to bring three phones with you aswell

Posted by: Joe on November 25, 2002 06:31 PM

Yes the high cost of calls is a problem. On a weeks trip to spain, my calls cost 75. The problem with getting a SIM card for each country is where do you get them from?

I am currently looking for a source for a SFR SIM card.
Any ideas???

Posted by: Richard on January 16, 2003 06:52 PM

I do exactly what Joe recomends. I have a Nokia 8890, and a prepaid sim card from the countries that I travel to frequently. I have regular monthly billed service in the US from t-mobile, and prepaid cards in the Netherlands and in Ireland, both from Vodaphone. Going to Italy next week, will be picking up a sim from there too. The sims are available at almost any mobile phone store and allow free incoming calls, I just sms my friends and family with my local number from wherever I am and they can call me.

Posted by: Andy on January 24, 2003 05:00 PM

I have read that you are not supposed to be allowed to buy an SIM card in Italy unless you are an Italian resident. Is this enforced at all ?

Posted by: Ken on April 12, 2003 04:05 AM
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