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Have phone will travel

True enough, but users still pay through the nostrils to make and receive calls out of their home territory.


September 1, 2006  


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The New Yorker magazine once published a cartoon by artist Leo Cullum, which depicted a buffalo talking on a cell phone. Playing on the old song “Home On The Range”, the buffalo says, “I love the convenience, but the roaming charges are killing me.”

This cartoon originally appeared in the magazine’s Oct. 19, 1998 issue (and one can now order prints of it from www.cartoonbank.com).

What I find interesting is that while we have seen market forces drive down most other costs associated with cell phone ownership, roaming charges have remained fairly stable. Here it is, eight years after Cullum poked a sharpened pencil up the industry’s nose, and wireless users still pay through the nostrils to make and receive calls out of their home territory.

EC tackles roaming

In Europe, something is being done about this. Roaming charges have caught the attention of the European Commission’s commissioner for information society and media, Viviane Reding.

Saying that “for years, mobile roaming charges have remained unjustifiably high,” she has set out to open what she calls “one of the last borders within Europe’s internal market.”

To do this, the EC proposed a new regulation in July that would cut the cost of using mobile phones abroad by up to 70%. The EC is concerned that the prices paid by wireless users for roaming services within the European Union’s member states may be out of step with what they pay in their home country.

The proposed regulation must be endorsed by the European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers, but if it’s approved it could come into force by next summer.

In the meantime, Reding’s branch of the EC has created a Web site that advises Europeans on how to shop around for a service provider that offers the most reasonable roaming charges.

It is an interesting example of government advocacy that’s sure to be popular with consumers – one that could nudge European operators to cut the prices they charge their customers for stepping across a border.

Unfortunately for Canadian wireless users, we are unlikely to get any relief from the prices charged by our carriers for international roaming — at least not in the short term. As the federal government’s Telecom Policy Review Panel pointed out in its final report, released on March 22 of this year, Canada is one of the least competitive wireless markets in the OECD.

The report says Canada has room to improve in almost every way. We lag behind the U.S. and many other countries in terms of market penetration, market growth rate, the introduction of new services and networks, and the overall prices paid by users. With so many other, more fundamental, areas that need work, it’s unlikely anybody will follow in Reding’s footsteps and campaign for reduced international roaming charges. That is a fight for the future, when other more pressing issues have been addressed.

IP alternative

The good news for Canadian businesses is that technology can combat these charges.

Today’s IP telephony systems allow users to take any desktop phone on the network and make it their own.

Punch in a user ID and password, and the phone assumes the user’s profile, including their phone number, speed dials, voicemail settings, and so on, regardless of that handset’s location, anywhere in the world.

Even more powerful is IP telephony’s ability to ring multiple devices simultaneously, then direct the call to the device one answers.

In yesterday’s office, employees had several phone numbers. Eventually, we all learned to call people on their mobiles, because that’s where we were most likely to reach them. The result? Powerful and inexpensive desk phones collect dust while employees sit in their cubicles chatting on their wireless handsets — and racking up airtime charges.

IP telephony reverses this trend by ringing the most appropriate device — including that full-featured desk phone.

Combining these two characteristics can seriously reduce not just international roaming charges, but all wireless costs, because wireless becomes an extension of the corporate phone system, not a replacement for it.

And that might just set off a stampede of corporate telecom managers and accountants to their nearest IP telephony vendor.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.