ITU moves to cut exorbitant roaming charges

Mobile user roaming at the airport.

The high roaming charges endured by those who travel to foreign countries but still need to stay in touch with their family (and or work mates) may soon be a thing of the past after the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) successfully lobbied its members to reduce the charges.

As part of the proposals, ITU members from the public and private sectors have agreed on measures to reduce ‘bill-shock’ whereby consumers are faced with unexpected and excessive charges for mobile roaming and have approved a number of measures to empower consumers and encourage operators to lower tariffs. These measures (Recommendation ITU-T D.98) will represent the first truly international agreement taking steps towards lowering roaming costs.

Currently, the roaming charges to most countries in the region are Kshs 29 while an SMS costs about Kshs 10.

As part of the proposals, governments and regulators are recommended to explore ways to protect and empower consumers in determining their best choices among the array of options available to them in the rapidly evolving mobile marketplace, for example by making information on international mobile services clearer and more transparent, and by making it easier for consumers to choose a network abroad that offers the best value.

ITU also recommends that alerts should be sent to consumers as they approach a certain cost limit for roaming, with a block placed on further usage unless authorized by the user. Market-based solutions are advocated, including cultivating regional cooperation among operators and regulators, and encouraging them to reach agreements on lowering wholesale roaming tariffs. Possible regulatory measures are also recommended, such as placing caps on prices charged to consumers for mobile roaming.

“ITU Member States agree on the need for international action on roaming charges, and this agreement is a clear indication of a willingness to address the issue for the good of both consumers and the global trade. I believe operators will see benefits in the long term as higher volumes of traffic are generated when it becomes more attractive for consumers to use their phones and mobile services while travelling,” said ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré.

International roaming is by nature a multi-country issue, and unified action from the international community is therefore the only means to address “bill-shock”. The issues involved and their degree vary from region to region (and also within regions), in terms of economics, market structures and regulatory frameworks.

As there is no guarantee that unilateral action by one country’s national regulatory authority will lead to reciprocal action in other countries, cooperation between regulators and policy makers – either bilaterally or multilaterally – is likely to be more effective than unilateral action by any one national regulatory authority.

Additional measures in Recommendation ITU-T D.98 include advocating the use of services that enable substitutes such as different SIM cards (an example is the use of global virtual mobile network operator cards), dual-SIM handsets, or the rental of a second handset.

ITU members are also encouraged to investigate the provision of international mobile roaming services by other means, for example by the take-up of new technologies so as to increase user choice.

The proposals are to be deliberated at the forthcoming  World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) set for Dubai this December, with the meeting considering whether the proposals on international mobile roaming should be included in the global treaty on international telecommunications. The treaty known as the “International Telecommunication Regulations” (ITRs) is up for review for the first time since 1988 – long before the explosion of mobile communications – to take into account the vastly altered telecommunications environment.

Proponents believe that regulations to ensure transparency of end-user prices for international mobile services, and for users to promptly receive full information when crossing a national border would lead to greater competition with potential benefits for consumers.

Another proposal would ensure that prices are based on either the actual costs incurred by the service provider, or comparable to the prices charged in the user’s home country, or to those charged to customers in the visited country.