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Many South Africans travelling overseas with a smartphone for the first time have made the shocking discovery that the data downloads they get free at home come at a massive cost beyond our borders.
Allan Bartram is the CEO of a Kempton Park-based business and has travelled overseas annually without any resultant cellphone “bill shock” on his return.
But on his most recent 10-day overseas trip, he took his new iPad and iPhone with him, unaware, as he puts it, “of the data-roaming dangers lurking within those devices”.
About 10 days after his return, his HR manager told him his cellphone bill, normally in the region of R1 200 a month, was R10 500.
“While overseas I had downloaded data I usually download at home – financial and forex info, weather and news – and I left the apps on.
“It’s not a problem at home, because the downloads are free, but overseas it’s a bill killer, as I’ve discovered on talking to friends and colleagues.”
Bartram is angry that his network, MTN, didn’t warn him to deactivate data roaming on his smartphone and tablet when travelling overseas because of the massive costs involved.
“Surely they could send an inexpensive SMS to those people who have gone overseas with these smartphones and quickly start racking up an inconsistently high bill, in the way that we get a call from our banks when they pick up unusual spending behaviour on our accounts?”
Lina Sadler of Durban, who is also an MTN subscriber, had a similar experience, only she’s ended up with a bill of R34 000.
She also recently upgraded to an iPhone and has had international roaming activated on her account since her previous overseas trip three years ago.
Sadler travelled to London at the end of March and a week into her stay she got an SMS from the network to say her phone had been blocked because her balance, at that time, had topped R32 000.
“I could still receive calls and SMSes, but all outgoing usage was blocked,” she said.
She later discovered the iTunes content her son had downloaded – thinking it was free on a relative’s WiFi – was being charged at international rates, and the bill kept mounting because of automatic updates.
Sadler is particularly angry about the shocking bill because she had always felt protected by the R5 000 bill limit she had in place on her MTN account.
But her bill hit R32 000 before MTN notified her that her service had been blocked.
When she queried this with the network, she was told that billing from overseas was delayed, so it would seem such bill limits are meaningless when it comes to international roaming.
Also, despite barring Sadler from making any further calls, she was still able to receive calls and SMSes while overseas, which are not free, so her bill continued to climb in this way until she returned home.
I sent MTN a detailed set of questions about both cases and asked what steps the network takes to warn its subscribers about the dangers of data roaming, in particular, when travelling overseas.
I also asked whether the network would consider waiving part of the bills in question.
Responding, customer services executive Eddie Moyce said the charges in both cases were “valid”.
“Mr Allan Bartram and Mrs Leonor Sadler are both MTN account holders who have had roaming activated for a number of years.
“Mr Bartram’s concern is that MTN had not notified him about the high roaming costs.
“MTN acknowledges that it may not have directly liaised with the customer before he left the country, as the company was not contacted by the customer prior to the business trip.
“But MTN has on numerous platforms and channels communicated informative tips to its customers – at least two press releases were issued during the latter period of 2011.
“Furthermore, MTN on its website, www.mtn.co.za, has a dedicated web page that educates customers, as well as warns them on costs related to roaming.
“MTN views this matter as closed.”
Sadler’s MTN account remains barred for outgoing calls and messages, and the best deal the network has offered her is paying off that R34 000 over three months.
She has no choice but to take it.
Bartram is unimpressed, and remains adamant that MTN “should communicate these warnings directly to all its customers annually in the form of an e-mail or SMS”.
Interestingly, the Apple iPhone itself carries a warning about this issue. Under the data roaming setting are the words: “Turn off data roaming when travelling to avoid charges when web browsing and using e-mail, MMS and other data.”
And as a user goes to select data roaming on the Samsung Galaxy smartphones, the following warning pops up: “Attention! Allow data roaming? You may incur significant roaming charges!”
But of course, if the data roaming option has already been selected, it may not occur to a new smartphone user to go to settings and make the necessary selections to turn it off.
Pay before you travel, insists Virgin Mobile
Long-time Virgin Mobile subscriber Gordon Laing of Cape Town travels overseas regularly, activating his roam-ing function before each trip, and deactivating it on return, by calling the company’s customer support centre.
(It’s a good idea to do this, incidentally, because unwittingly you could become connected to a foreign network and be charged international rates.)
But when Laing called Virgin Mobile to activate his international roaming before his most recent trip, he was told he had to pay R10 000 before this could be done.
“The agent couldn’t tell me when this had been implemented, or how subscribers had been told, but insisted this sum would not be returned to me,” he said. But when Laing arrived in the US, his international roaming was active, despite his not paying the R10 000.
Responding to Consumer Alert’s query, Virgin Mobile SA’s “customer experience” executive Clint Payne said the R10 000 “pre-payment” did not apply to Laing as he was a regular traveller overseas and had an impeccable payment record.
As for how the pre-payment works, Virgin Mobile subscribers were either refunded the balance of the R10 000 after all the call charges from the overseas networks had been received, Payne said, “or they can opt to put their account into credit and bill against that credit until it’s depleted”.
“We prefer the latter because it takes up to 90 days for all the roaming costs to reach us,” he said. “Many leisure travellers transit through multiple countries… and we need to allow for these call costs to reach us before we calculate the final bill.”
Payne said Virgin Mobile was working on establishing separate roaming settings for SMS, voice and data.
“That way we would be able to provide low-risk, low-cost SMS roaming for almost anyone, and voice roaming to more people, with a potentially lower pre-payment. Data roaming is the risky, very expensive one, and until rates come down significantly, will probably attract a high pre-payment.”
Vodacom SMS warning specifies charges to be paid on foreign networks
In December Vodacom announced the launch of its Roaming Tariff Information (RTI) service, which warns subscribers about the roaming rates applicable in the countries they travel to.
As they arrive at their destination, they get a free SMS from Vodacom, specifying the precise roaming rates they will pay on a particular foreign network.
Asked whether the service had reduced the number of cases of bill shock in the past four months, Vodacom’s head of corporate affairs, Richard Boorman, said while the network couldn’t provide statistics, “customer feedback on the roaming tariff information SMS has been extremely positive”.
“We are currently the only network in SA that offers this service to our customers and it is free.”
Boorman said the network had also run a “huge” data roaming education campaign providing tips on how to manage data consumption when roaming.
“This included press releases, bill inserts, e-mailers and MMS campaigns, and we also created a short video which is on our website, Facebook page and YouTube.”
Boorman said Vodacom was working to allow its customers to turn data roaming off at the network level, and not just on their mobile devices.
“This means when they activate roaming, they have the option to activate voice and SMS services only, and not data.”
How to avoid a bill shock
* If you use a smartphone or a tablet, make sure that only essential data-related activities on your device are enabled to avoid using large volumes of data.
Receiving e-mail, browsing the web, using instant messaging services and other applications should only be activated when necessary to avoid using large volumes of data and accumulating a high bill.
* Using a handset to check e-mail, browse the web and use instant messaging such as BBM or other applications may be free in SA, but it’s anything but free when roaming – you’ll be billed at world rates. The same goes for accessing services such as Vodafone live.
* Set up your e-mail client to download the headers of new e-mails only. Once you’ve received the headers of new e-mails, you can then select which e-mails should be downloaded in full to prevent large downloads.
Avoid downloading e-mails with large attachments – this is a bill killer.
* Streaming video, person-to-person file sharing or any other type of file download is data intensive and can result in extremely high bills.
* When using data roaming on a laptop abroad, remember to disable all automatic download activity which happens in the background, like operating system updates or software/app updates.
* Disable your smartphone or tablet from performing automatic app refreshes or automatic software updates to prevent large data downloads.
* If you don’t want to use data roaming at all – the safest choice – turn data roaming off on your device.