Mobile operators need to get out of the way and find new models which put the new wave of mobile, hyper-connected consumers first when using data services abroad.
Picture the Scene
A handful of mobile visionaries, luminaries and hangers-on emerge from a restaurant in Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico on the eve of Mobile World Congress.
Bodies satiated with salted cod and minds satisfied with the cut and thrust of friendly debate, we emerge into the warm night.
It’s been a challenge, but I’ve done my best to neglect email and social networking for the night and instead give my full attention to my fellow diners. Now, I reach for and check for messages on one of my one of my two indispensable smart phones.
“Beware of the pickpockets” a wise friend of mine cautioned. “They’re in the skies as well as in the streets.”
His witty remark struck a chord with me; earlier that evening my mobile network had advised me that I was fast approaching my 10 mb data roaming limit after only a day and a half out of the country. It was painful too, as before setting off I had phoned my operator in the hope of securing the cheapest way possible of using my smartphone abroad.
This is not a personal gripe about the cost of data roaming. Let’s face it, I can afford it and it’s part of the cost of doing business. It’s more a reflection on how this pain point for me is one which will be shared by a growing number of connected customers, and how the industry needs to respond before consumers and their watchdogs take an interest.
Working in digital strategy and services and means that my data consumption habits veer towards the early adopter on the distribution curve. Yet what marks you out as a geek / techno addict one year very rapidly becomes the norm. I suspect that in two years’ time my behaviour will not seem abnormal. Right now I’m seeing “non-techie” friends instinctively use downloadable maps, share experiences in real-time through audio, video and photos or use location and context to enrich social profiles on a real-time basis.
Analyst Mary Meeker, now of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, has assembled what I believe are set of irrefutable arguments on how and why we are entering the age of seamless mass mobility which has eluded us for the last decade.
Smart devices are affordable and usable. Attractive and often addictive new services are gaining consumer traction, and investments being made in connectivity via WiFi and LTE. This all adds up to a huge future for mobile connected services.
Unless, that is you choose to go abroad.
In the early days of data services, enterprise, not consumer demand drove the thinking of mobile operators, OpCos could be assured of corporate customers who would cover the cost for data roaming.
Yet future demand for network services is going to come overwhelmingly from the consumer segment. That’s the consumers who like cheap short-hop flights, book hotels themselves and who who get withdrawal symptoms after two hours away from FaceBook.
These customers are already developing the habit of sharing richer information at the points of inspiration, curiosity and frustration. In their home markets they’re connected to capped or unlimited data plans and bathed in WiFi at home, college and work.
Yet go across a border, and this feast turns into a famine: data charges must be eked out by the byte.
Operators can create more value if they stand aside.
Fuelled mainly by the threat of action by the EU and the crusading attitude of commissioner Viviane Reding, European operators have moved to greater transparency in data roaming for voice and text.
Yet data charges have been notably absent from the discussion, possibly because consumers have yet to encounter the “bill shock” from data roaming. Perhaps for the first time, this summer’s travellers, armed with smartphones and their social media addiction, may produce a similar same outcry as that €10 three-minute call home did in the middle of last decade.
Through consolidation, many of Europe’s networks are under common ownership, with Vodafone, Telefonica, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom in a position to create attractive packages for their European users. From a commercial and technical standpoint the excuses for high data roaming will prove unsustainable.
Retention is now, more than ever, the metric to which operators pay attention. Offering great value voice and text packages for an assured monthly spend is now an accepted way of keeping customers. Through consumer demand (and the threat of intervention from the EC), voice roaming costs can now be controlled and made transparent with add-on packages.
Data roaming, by contrast is an anachronism, with overbearing charging models driven by the operator’s outdated models of recouping investment costs.
Mobile operators in Europe have a unique opportunity to enjoy the huge rewards from massive upturns in demand for data connectivity. In a united Europe with powerful telcos, this connectivity needs to be as seamless as services it supports. Operators need to ensure they capture that opportunity and deliver services which reflect consumer needs in this decade, not the outmoded commercial relationships and technologies of the last.
As for me, the rest of the trip was spent practicing mobile digital abstinence, holding out on that extra tweet or foursquare check-in until business need demanded it, or at least until I reached the safety of hotel or free public wifi. Photo uploads were banned in favour of side loading, and I didn’t even allow myself to think about sharing that video to my mobile me locker. It may have been a small loss to the world, missing out on the “wall of ham” pictures from the sidestreets. But it was, in every sense, an unwelcome and uncomfortable step back to the days of tyranny in data roaming.