Hit the road Jack…

I recently visited Rome with my fiancée to flee the Northern European cold spring and get a glimpse of summer. Weather was as great as hoped for but we failed to get much of the culinary experience expected. We eventually ended up at too many restaurants that put more effort in translating menus to three languages than cooking and both left Rome a little disappointed.

Given the fact that we both own smartphones, an obvious way of exploring the city would have been to gather up-to-date reviews at one of the many city review websites. There was one thing stopping us though: the data roaming fees. Our respective operators kindly sent us an SMS upon arrival in Italy letting us know that each megabyte of data would cost us close to €3. We didn’t get connected, unfortunately didn’t buy a new guidebook either and often ended up at tourist traps after hours looking for something more exciting.

Roaming fees continue to be a subject of anger to tourists, business travellers and regulators alike. The European Union telecom regulator has a clear goal to have zero difference between regular and roaming tariffs by 2015, if not voluntarily then by legislation. European operators have reluctantly and slowly adapted, for example T-Mobile launching “virtually unlimited surfing” while abroad for €14.95 per week. This is a start but far from zero difference and should still be a reason not only for roaming customers and regulators to get upset.

Any country or city expecting to be well perceived by todays highly connected travellers should be eager to have everyone using online services and apps to explore the surroundings. This calls for data tariffs that are not measured in abstract terms such as megabytes and that are reasonably priced compared to what people are used to back home. If visitors have positive experiences of the place they’re visiting, everyone wins. If on the other hand visitors eat overpriced food at bad restaurants because they can’t find the good ones, or don’t get to see the latest art exhibition simply because they didn’t know about it, people are very likely to let others know. Here is a reason as good as any why there should be more national pressure on operators to push roaming rates down.

On a positive note, the inabilities of some to change spur the innovativity of others. Some sell local mobile broadband subscription at the arrival gate of airports and others offer multicountry low cost roaming deals, like Abroadband that offers multi-national roaming at €0.59 per MB. Wi-Fi hotspot and specialized roaming providers have likely also benefitted from the data roaming rate madness, driving people aching for connectivity to find less costly alternatives while abroad.

At today’s pace of business, operators will soon find themselves sidestepped by roaming alternatives just like Internet players have challenged telecom operators on their own turf with voice-over-IP calling. To dodge this threat, operators should dare to be first movers in cutting data roaming rates. To help operators reach that decision, governments and tourist boards should acknowledge the importance of providing connectivity to visitors. Not only do I believe there is enough price elasticity in roaming fees to make this a good deal for the operators, but there are many indirect benefits to reap as well. We can all rest assured that people will continue to travel the world like never before and will want to be online while doing it, but not at a price tag equalling the plane ticket.

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