Mobile roaming needs to stop disappointing customers

07 February 2023

Dario Betti, CEO, Mobile Ecosystem Forum

Roaming requires the complex organisation of mobile operators, phone manufacturers, masts, and regulatory bodies all working seamlessly, making it one of the greatest technical achievements of the mobile sector. But many travellers are finding that their phones do not always work abroad — even in areas that were perfectly covered before — and their bills are far from worry free.

Many mobile operators are in the process of decommissioning their older networks (2G and 3G), in favour of more efficient 4G and 5G networks. These new networks are not yet fully supported for roaming by all operators.

There is plenty to concern customers — we appear to be going backwards, not forwards — and frankly more work from mobile operators is needed to protect one of the true successes of the mobile revolution. Here are a few areas requiring attention.

Support VoLTE roaming

Not supporting international roaming has multiple effects for high value customers: not receiving an SMS can block a bank transaction or a payment, voice communication is still key for business and private communications. Patchy or non-existent coverage while roaming is unacceptable. Customers rely on mobile devices; both voice calling and SMS are basic and intrinsic services expected from mobile phones. Mobile operators are reducing their value by not providing a consistent connection. Support for 4G and 5G roaming is necessary – or customers will go elsewhere.

Build services

Operators need to build a robust and reliable network to provide a universal service and sign commercial deals that will get customers connected overseas. If customers can reliably travel to any country and use their mobile phone for voice and SMS, they will likely be happy to pay the premium.

Alternatively, and this is better suited to low-cost operators, rather than spending time, money, and resources building a universal network, these operators could build packages of OTT services, such as free WhatsApp messaging and voice calling, so that users can use their data allowance (already carried via the 4G network).
Whichever option mobile operators take, pricing strategy will be very important. Pricing these services needs to reflect the market, the competition, and the level of service the customer can expect. Set prices too low and it threatens to bring the market down. Too high and customers will find alternative workarounds.

Design easy to use international packages

In the age of apps and easier self-service and customer experience, some mobile operators are struggling to share information, and build packages that allow users to feel in control during their international trips. Daily passes, capped spending and many other tools have been created by operators to give customers the level of transparency and worry-free billing that can make roaming easy and enjoyable service. Operators should feel free to copy best practices.

Roaming is a premium service, but it should not be an exorbitant trap

A few operators are giving roaming a bad name, but it is every operator’s duty to control and manage their roaming prices. Prices are negotiated by two sides: the originating and the visited network – ultimately it is a common goal to get a fair and affordable price for roaming. Operators need to do a lot of additional work and maintenance to ensure roaming services work effectively. If a customer is paying a premium, they better receive the service they expect.

Make it simple – and communicate

One of the major challenges from the 2000s was the sheer complexity of overlapping technologies consumers had to contend with. They had to have the right handset with the correct signal banding for the destination country, the right mobile operator with the correct services enabled, and the right products to provide the connection. Today, people do not want to deal with such complexity. These issues were ironed out more than 10 years ago, so people do not expect to have to deal with this anymore.

Whatever solution you choose (building roaming networks, or putting together OTT packages for roaming customers), communicate with the customer and let them know what they need to do. For example, allow them to download configuration settings before they set off, tell them exactly what is included in the package or what services work in which countries. For example, some countries, like the UK, are dominated by WhatsApp while others have their own popular equivalent; in Korea most people use KakaoTalk, commonly known as KaTalk.

Keeping pace with technology can be tricky and developments move at a different pace around the world. In South Africa, most mobile users use 3G, with a sizeable percentage still using 2G. In the USA, on the other hand, 3G networks are largely decommissioned.

But technology should not be an excuse for poor service. Customers can easily compare services across different operators to find one that works, is reasonably priced, and helps rather than hinders them while travelling.

It is time for the industry to take a long hard look at roaming and make a serious commitment to ‘do better’ and create a new ‘golden age’ of roaming that’s good for customers and therefore, by extension, the industry as well.