Saturday, 18 January 2014

Don't roam

Just don’t do it, OK? Roaming on your cellphone is a very good way of bringing back an unexpected souvenir from your trip abroad. A staggeringly huge phone bill.

Just a few days ago we received a comment from a customer who had recently traveled to China for a month. He says that when he arrived in China
“my data was disconnected then I asked a friend to buy data for me, he did and I enjoyed it until I was notified when my usage was at 90% and 100% and I was disconnected. Shockingly when I arrived in Botswana I found waiting for me a P50,000 bill for data roaming. I was told that when roaming Orange Botswana has no control over our usage. At the moment Orange Botswana is demanding payment, I am not only failing to pay but also think the outcome is unfair.”
If you think P50,000 is a lot of money for some data roaming, then think again. We’ve heard of bills, much, much higher than this.

Last year a reader approached us with a nightmare story of a truly enormous roaming bill. Her son had travelled to South Africa and taken a Mascom 3G-enabled iPad with him. After he’d been there for about a week the Mum got a call from Mascom warning her that her son had already built up P20,000 in roaming charges and suggesting she tell him to switch it off. Startled, she did exactly that and he stopped surfing immediately but that wasn’t the end of the story. Their bill for the iPad’s holiday to SA arrived at the end of the month and was for a jaw-dropping, staggering, heart attack-inducing P280,000, all for one week of web surfing.

Obviously the first thing they did was demand a detailed bill from Mascom that justified this astonishing amount of money. No luck, that was impossible. All Mascom could say was that they’d received a massive bill from Vodacom and it was up to the customer to pay it.

It turned out that the problem was that the son had been an area where Mascom’s preferred roaming partner, MTN, didn’t offer a signal so he’d innocently connected to Vodacom instead, not realising that the data download cost was something like 20 times higher with Vodacom than with MTN. This was sorted out in the end, when Mascom did the decent thing and only charged them the original P20,000 they warned them about. That’s still a fortune but they understood that their son had downloaded a large amount of data before being asked to stop. But it’s a lot better than P280,000.

To be fair both Mascom and Orange will tell you, if you ask them, that you should consider switching your data roaming off if you travel abroad but I don’t think they do nearly enough. They can’t give you any indication of quite how expensive it can be.

For instance Orange say on their web site that the rates “vary for each destination country and for each mobile operator where we have more than 1 Roaming agreement in a country. Our Roaming coverage is continuously expanding and it is important for subscribers to get in touch with us to confirm whether Roaming is available at their country of destination and the applicable Roaming rates.”

So I did. I called the Orange call centre and asked them what the rates were per megabyte if I went to South Africa and roamed with either MTN or Vodacom. The news was bleak. After over 10 minutes on hold they confirmed that the rate with Vodacom was a massive P45. If I connected to MTN they had no idea what it would cost me. They simply didn’t know.

Mascom show the data roaming rates for MTN (between P6 and P7 per megabyte) on their web site but give no clues about the price of data roaming with Vodacom.

When I called Mascom and asked them the same question they also confirmed what I’d found online. The data rate with MTN was up to P7, which the call centre operator was honest enough to describe as “very high”. When I asked about data using Vodacom the answer was actually very honest. “We’ve had instances where people can connect but the charges are actually ridiculous” I was told.

Previously when we’ve asked both Mascom and Orange have told us that “it’s quite expensive”, that they “don’t have specific charges” and “I can’t tell”, “we don’t know” and “I can’t find out.”

It’s simply not good enough. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to at least give us a clue what it will cost us if we try and pick up our email or surf the web when we’re away from home.

Meanwhile there’s a much simpler solution. Just don’t roam. Instead get a local SIM card in the country you go to and use that instead. If you absolutely need to use your Botswana number abroad only use it for receiving calls and make any out-going calls on your new foreign cellphone. A cheap cellphone will cost you P250 before you go (probably less in the country you visit ) and use that with your new foreign SIM card. I know in South Africa and some other countries you have to prove a local address when buying a SIM card but your hotel, guesthouse or host will lend you their address if you ask them nicely.

I urge you to do this, it might save you a small fortune.

Meanwhile I think it’s time for Consumer Watchdog to write to the cellphone companies and their regulator, BOCRA about this, don’t you?

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