Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Mikaël Schachne, VP Mobility Solutions at BICS, takes a look back at the first year of no roaming charges in Europe.
The EU has again picked June for a well-timed summer-holiday-coinciding telecoms-themed announcement. At the start of the month, governors and lawmakers in the European Union proposed capping the cost of calls and texts between Member States.
The yet-to-be decided move follows the abolition of roaming charges, announced in 2017 to the delight of many holidaymakers. In addition to avoiding ‘bill shock’, if signed off in the autumn, subscribers travelling within the EU will pay a maximum of 17p per minute for calls and 5p for text messages.
The EU’s move marks a further shift towards a model of borderless connectivity, which could soon be replicated on a global scale. This shift not only presents opportunities for operators – through encouraging more international calls and less restricted device usage – but also delivers sizable benefits for consumers and businesses.
However, the transformation in telecoms is not without its challenges. These include negative reaction to roam like at home (RLAH) from some in the industry and the need to make up for any losses in revenue.
800% growth in data roaming traffic
RLAH has certainly been a hit with consumers, evidenced by the massive increase in data roaming traffic last summer. The period June to September 2017 saw a 600-800% increase in LTE data roaming traffic in the EU, compared with the same period in 2016.
Note that this is data traffic, which was the main driver in the overall increase in roaming traffic in the EU. European subscribers have clearly been enjoying the same kinds of OTT messaging apps and entertainment services on holiday and on business trips, as they do at home. Since April 2018, this has been made even easier, thanks to the EU’s content portability regulation. Those who hold accounts with OTT content services – like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify – are now able to access videos, TV shows, music etc. on their accounts wherever they travel in the EU.
In addition to humans roaming with smartphones, there is also a growing number of connected devices and ‘things’ which need to remain ‘always on’ as they move from country to country.
Global connectivity is a crucial enabler for machine-to-machine communications and the wider IoT, unlocking a major revenue opportunity for operators. Many businesses will be looking to extend their connected business beyond domestic borders and achieve a global machine-to-machine network footprint. This could encompass anything from tracking packages to ensuring a connected car is able to send and receive data wherever its driver takes it. These new business cases will rely on operators’ roaming services and global networks, helping to drive revenue and replace that lost through the falling use of traditional voice and SMS services.
But what kind of implications will low-cost roaming in the EU have for other regions? Subscribers will quickly become accustomed to a seamless, high-quality service whether at home or away, with border-crossing no longer interfering with or restricting connectivity. Subscribers travelling outside the EU will expect a similar level of service, at a similar price point.
Fortunately, many operators will be able to offer a similar level of service, thanks to an increase in the number that now support LTE services. Global LTE traffic more than doubled in 2017 with a total of 562 operators offering LTE services; an increase of 25% on 2016. LTE in Africa in particular has really taken off, with a growth in the number of MVNOs and tier three/four operators introducing LTE roaming services in the region during 2017, helping to kick-start wider roll-out.
But just because subscribers can access LTE services in more global destinations, the high cost of roaming in many non-EU countries will result in a high number of ‘silent roamers’ when they travel – or huge phone bills.
This issue was recently brought to the fore, with uSwitch predicting that football fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup could face roaming charges of up to £3,696 over a two-week trip. In response, some operators have launched global roaming packages, where subscribers can pay a fixed daily fee to access the same data, minutes and text allowance in a number of regions worldwide.
RLAH has opened operators’ eyes to the wants of today’s consumer: seamless, high-quality, worldwide connectivity, at low cost. This has in turn opened up the possibility of ‘GRLAH’: global roam like at home. For this to happen, regulators considering implementing similar policies must collaborate with mobile operators and the wider telecoms industry. Dialogue should focus on how overall mobile usage can be increased and should ensure that any changes in legislation (and potential revenue losses) are balanced by methods to boost/future-proof revenues in other areas of business.
Silent roamers: an opportunity worth shouting about
One way to balance the books in light of RLAH is to ‘awaken’ silent roamers outside of the EU. RLAH will have highlighted the comparatively high costs of roaming in many global destinations, serving as a prompt to many subscribers to switch off their data roaming, or switch off their smartphone altogether when outside of the EU.
Operators should draw on the vast wealth of subscriber data they have access to and offer personalised roaming packages which incentivise subscribers to remain connected to a network, wherever they are. This could involve identifying a phone user’s normal pattern of usage and preferred services, and creating a tailored bundle (which is both affordable and convenient) based on the findings.
To allay fears of post-holiday bill shock, operators can also provide subscribers with greater visibility into their data roaming usage. Real-time consumption monitoring, the ability to set and manage usage caps, and notifications relating to this can all help empower consumers and foster a positive operator/subscriber relationship.
Demand for roaming services shows no sign of slowing. Following a positive reaction – and mass uptake – in the EU, subscriber demand for access to low-cost, high-quality services worldwide will also grow. Operators must adapt to this new paradigm by unlocking new opportunities in the provision of IoT roaming services, stimulate mobile usage through tailored services, and optimise the user experience. The industry must band together and maintain an open, ongoing dialogue to deliver global connectivity, and future-proof the business of telecoms.
Mikaël Schachne joined the international division of Belgacom in 2001 which was then spun-off and merged with Swisscom International and MTN International. After having successfully led the product development and management of new international mobile data services such as Signalling, GPRS Roaming eXchange (GRX), SMS Hubbing, MMS Hubbing, Instant Roaming and Open Connectivity Roaming Hubbing, he’s now in charge of the Mobile Data Business at BICS. The portfolio which has been built across the last 10 years is now supporting international mobile communications needs for more than 400 Mobile Operators and MVNOs across the world.