cutting roaming charges for data users. The new arrangements are modeled on the existing ‘Passport’ arrangement for voice roaming, whereby users may opt in to a tariff plan which allows them to have roaming access at “home” rates for a fixed fee (either per day or through a monthly contract).
Vodafone will inevitably trumpet the generosity of its offer, and users will almost as inevitably complain that the new deal does not abolish roaming charges altogether. In fact, there is a sense in which Vodafone is making a virtue of an impending necessity, since regulatory pressures are pushing data roaming charges downwards, and a price reduction initiative from other large groups is highly probable.
The details of the offer are relatively straightforward. Opt in, pay a fixed daily rate, and your consumption of data while roaming is charged on the same basis as if you were at home. If you roam often enough, there’s a monthly tariff add-on instead of the daily add-on, which can save you more money.
Some of the details about the rollout (some countries in time for Christmas, others during the course of next year) and footprint of the new service (not the same as the Passport voice roaming offer, but all European countries where there is either a Vodafone group member or a partner network) seem complex.
The charges and the bundle allowances are not the same in all countries, which makes it look even more confusing. But most users won’t see this, and will surely welcome the opportunity to pay less.
Vodafone has quite rightly pointed out that this offer allows it to build on unmet demand for data roaming. Lots of customers switch off data when they travel, because they don’t know how much they are going to end up paying for allowing their applications to carry on working in the background. Now, instead of getting nothing from these people, Vodafone will at least get the daily or monthly fee.
What’s more, the downward pressure on roaming rates from regulators is not going to go away. By embracing the inevitable, Vodafone can present itself to its customers as innovative and generous. Other operators are likely to follow suit, but only one can be first.
Users are unlikely to be overwhelmed
Many users will save quite a lot of money as a result of the new offer. So why won’t it make them happy? The answer is that they don’t really understand why they should pay a premium to use their phone abroad at all. Thirty years ago, when the introduction of GSM ushered in the era of what was then called “anonymous” roaming, users could marvel at the fact that their phone would work in other countries.
Even if they didn’t understand all the technical complexities involved in supporting mobility management, and charging and billing, across national frontiers and network boundaries, it still seemed like a “cool” thing to be able to do. Unhappily for network operators, that is no longer the case. Enterprise users are positively hostile to the idea of roaming charges, and are less likely to be impressed by Vodafone’s new offer.
Abroad is no longer as foreign as it used to be, and lots of services just work wherever you are, either with no premium or with only a very small one. The very success of mobile communications in becoming an indispensable tool for the management of personal life only exacerbates this problem.
The smartphone way of life is predicated on a device that is always connected, and which updates its applications and content without the conscious intervention of the user. Treating roaming as a premium service, where every bit is a premium bit, just does not fit.