Behind the bill shock scenes: the anatomy of roaming

International data roaming remains to be one of the most misunderstood areas of travelling abroad. Due to its complexity, many subscribers – a staggering 80-90% of them – choose to avoid roaming all together opting for public Wi-Fi services. This network of active but undetected users are ‘silent roamers’. For these silent roamers it might appear as the mobile operators are the villains of international roaming, charging way over price for it and only enjoying the profits from the bill shock. However there are two sides to every story.

Bill-shock happened

Earlier this year we carried out a global roaming bill shock survey together with ROCCO, the roaming consultancy company, to find out why and how bill shock occurs and what needs to be done to resolve the issue. In total the operator respondents represented a subscriber base of 2.5 Billion. The findings were interesting to say the least and shed light on the issue that is far from being as simple as the public discussion suggests.

Roaming is a complex ecosystem. International roaming is ensured with bilateral roaming agreements between operators and the number of those arrangements in place across the globe is in the hundreds of thousands. For instance, one operator typically has between 250 and 500 data roaming partners and it’s not uncommon to have up to 700 partners globally. The sheer expense and time that operators need to commit to keep the agreements updated explains one part of roaming being so costly.

When asymmetric travel patterns are added to this equation, wholesale price negotiations between operators become even more convoluted. It might be difficult for smaller operators to get the kind of deals that bigger operators with huge amounts of internationally travelling subscribers can. In that sense, roaming is not a fair game between operators either.

But there’s even more to roaming and the processes behind it than meets the regular roamer’s eye. Before being able to notify the customer the operator needs to verify that the roaming information exchanged between the home operator and the roaming partner is accurate and conform to the valid roaming agreement. This process takes place unbeknown to the subscriber and is many times performed by a third party data clearing house. The data validation process between the operators can take from hours to up to 37 days making the bill shock almost inevitable prospect for a roamer who’s not on top of his data consumption and cost.

Roaming validation process

There are a number of ways that these processes can be simplified one of which is the use of capping methods, communicated via live SMS updates. However, we have seen – and even the operators agree – that sometimes these cut-off mechanisms are just not reliable. Clearly there’s a lot to do to streamline and improve the roaming processes in order to make them less money and time consuming. Goodspeed is in the front line in making the change happen but before our job is done globally there is plenty that an ordinary roamer can do to stop bill shock from happening. It’s not all process’s doing, you know.

According to our study the user’s lack of knowledge about smartphones and how they work in a roaming scenario is seen as one of the main factors for bill shock. This includes the user’s understanding of the automatic updates that different applications perform in the background, or the amount of data consumption of different services such as streaming videos vs sending Whatsapp messages. Also for many, it is not entirely clear how to bar data roaming from their mobile device altogether. So, to do your part in preventing bill shock from happening, is to get to know your mobile device, be it a tablet or a smartphone, before going abroad.

As we have seen, getting rid of excessive roaming fees and bill shock is not as simple as just posing artificial caps by regulation. At its best regulation can only be an incentive to change. The discussion needs to concentrate more on understanding the actual reasons for the current state of roaming and how we can best work together to overcome those challenges.

- Hanne @Uros