A member of the media take a look at the new iPad in the demo area during an Apple event in San Francisco, California March 7, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

I’m returning to the issue of data roaming this week, because my inbox tells me it’s a very hot topic and some new information has come to light.

Thanks to all those who wrote to share their horror stories of high roaming bills as a result of using their smartphones while overseas.

In most cases, the massive bills arose because the smartphone users were unaware that data use, while free at home, was anything but free while abroad.

And by failing to turn off data roaming on their phones, automatic download activity continued in the background.

Their outrage stemmed as much from the fact that they felt their network didn’t do enough to warn them of the dangers of data roaming, as from the unbelievably high cost itself.

Cape Town businessman Steve Thomas said when his wife recently travelled to the UK with her new iPhone, they enabled SMS roaming only and diverted her incoming calls to his SA cellphone to limit costs.

Three days into her trip, Thomas got a call from MTN to say his wife’s phone bill was unusually high – almost R900.

“I said that was okay, given that she was in the UK, but six days later I got another call from the network to say her account had reached R9 000.”

Despite switching the phone off at the point, the bill had climbed to R15 000 by the end of the trip – 10 times its usual amount.

“All attempts to find the cause were stonewalled by MTN – none of the call centre people or managers was able or willing to explain what the problem was. Now, having read your column, I realise it was the data roaming facility.”

Thomas said he’d travelled a great deal for many years and was “very technically aware”.

“But never in my wildest dreams did I expect to accumulate a bill of more than R15 000 for something which is essentially only consumed in the background.

“When I spoke to an attorney, he said he knew of people with R60 000 bills after a week in Mauritius!”

MTN subscriber Bruce Mackenzie, of Southbroom, KwaZulu-Natal, also a “victim” of a data roaming bill shock, says MTN’s website reveals the charge to be R3.51/25 kilobytes – or R4 with VAT.

“Twenty-five kilobytes is a tiny volume of data and I suspect they price it that way so nobody notices what an exorbitant charge it is,” he says.

“In reality, 100Mb of data could be used by someone roaming overseas with a smartphone or iPad.”

So he posed the following question to MTN: “You can buy 100 megabytes of data in a pay-as-you-go package from MTN locally for round about R30 and in Australia for the equivalent of R5 inclusive of VAT.

“So how can something that you can buy in either country for, at most, less than R30 retail, become R16 000 when roaming?

“Clearly there is an international connectivity charge to be paid, but of this magnitude?”

Of course, the issue is not network specific, but since Mackenzie had asked the question of MTN, I approached that network for a response.

MTN’s general manager of product innovation and development, Mike Fairon, obliged: “Retail data roaming rates are largely based upon inter-operator tariffs with our roaming partners,” he said.

“Operators from destinations that send more international visitors than they receive from South Africa have leveraged their favourable balance of power to roam on their networks.

“Although MTN has managed to steadily decrease rates over the past few years, we remain committed to negotiating down the wholesale roaming rates by reducing inter-operator tariffs with our roaming partners.”

Another MTN subscriber, Shaun Burgess, said he had learnt that MTN had a service called One World which allowed MTN subscribers to make and receive calls, and send and receive SMSes, in any of the 21 countries in which the network operated – without paying the normal high roaming rates.

A press release states: “MTN One World allows you to pay the same rate as the locals of the visiting country do, and you will not be charged for receiving SMSes from any destination.

“The service also provides you with easy access to the value-added services you use in your home countries.”

But for some reason, the service isn’t available to South Africans.

“I have tried on many occasions to find out from MTN why we are excluded, but I’ve been fobbed off with ‘we will enquire from our marketing department’ type responses and there has been no follow-up,” he said.

So I asked the network that question, too, and hadn’t received a response at the time of writing.

Imraan Mall of Durban began researching the issue of data roaming bill shock after his personal experience of it, and discovered that since July 2010 EU consumers had been legally protected from the phenomenon – at least while roaming in the EU.

According to EU roaming rules, travellers’ data-roaming limit is automatically set at e50 (about R515), excluding VAT, unless they have chosen another limit – higher or lower.

Operators have to send users a warning when they reach 80 percent of their data-roaming bill limit, and once the limit has been reached, they are obliged to cut off the mobile internet connection, unless the customer has indicated they want to continue data roaming.

Also, the maximum wholesale prices for data roaming fell from e1 to 80c/Mb.

And the cost of making and receiving calls when abroad in the EU is now 73 percent cheaper than it was in 2005, when the EU first started to tackle excessive roaming charges.

“Who do we lobby in South Africa to implement a similar law… and stop this happening to more people?” Mall asked.

I started with the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).

Councillor Fungai Sibanda said data roaming was high on the regulator’s agenda.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) ministers responsible for telecommunications had initiated an “SADC Home and Away Roaming” project in an effort to address high roaming charges, he said.

“The first phase of the project was completed in 2010 by the Regional Alliance Task Team and a report was adopted by the SADC ministers during their annual meeting in May 2010 in Angola,” Sibanda said.

“Flowing from the first phase report, national regulatory authorities had to ensure the implementation of transparency and consumer protection measures by their operators, including SMS notifications by the home network regarding tariffs in the visited country; provision of roaming tariff information on the operator websites and the implementation of bill limits.

“Icasa sent letters to all mobile operators last year urging them to implement these measures. As your article indicates, at least Vodacom now has an SMS notification system alerting travellers of applicable tariffs in the visited countries and all operators provide roaming information on their websites.

“We are following up with all operators on progress in this regard.”

Good idea.

Getting those bill limits in place should be a matter of urgency.

The SADC ministers of ICT would meet soon, Sibanda said, and a phase two report from the task team was expected.

Meanwhile, spread the word. Full advice on how to prevent data roaming bill shock can be found in last week’s column, online.

Go to www.iol.co.za, click on blogs, and then Consumer Watch.