Seems kind of unfair, no? News stories about these astronomical fees are all the rage at the moment, and Canadians are understandably pissed off about what they're reading. But the question I want to address in this post is whether or not us Canadians really have it that bad with regards to roaming charges. I mean, the articles seem pretty convincing, and the angle has been pushed by damn near every major media outlet in Canada. Stories on Canadian roaming charges have been flogged by the Toronto Star, Moneyville, the CBC, the Globe and Mail, Canada.com, all those crappy newspapers they hand out for free in the Subway, the Financial Post, and so on. All these articles harp on the disastrous consequences this could have for Canadians traveling abroad ("Woe is me! I took an all expenses-paid trip to the Maldives, checked my twitter feed between all the massages and scuba diving, and came back home with a $2,000 cell-phone bill!"...our hearts break for you, really), and provide several ways in which jet-setters and ordinary travel-schmoes alike can mitigate them. On an unrelated note, "jet-setter" is not a term I'm wont to use. But I just checked out Jay-Z's blog lifeandtimes.com last night, and I think the overwhelming use of this word got into my head. Seriously, I checked out the site for maybe 20 minutes and must have seen or heard "jet-setter" at least 47 and a half times. But I digress. The tips these articles mentioned were on the whole quite useful, and included turning off data-roaming on your device and only using wi-fi, not using mobile internet (i.e. logging onto a computer at your hotel or an internet cafe, rather than using your BlackBerry), get a prepaid data roaming package (call your provider and get it set up ahead of time), or even buy a cheap travel phone. Buying a cheap travel phone is actually a favourite practice of ours here at MobileVantage. The phones and minutes are generally dirt cheap, and it makes for yet another cool souvenir from your trip. In fact, we have cheap "burner" phones from the Dominican Republic, Thailand, India, Mexico, and Nicaragua kicking around the office. When you do what we do, that's about the best conversation piece one can have.
So while these tips are all very useful, I'd like to get back to the original question of whether Canadians really have it that bad. Do we actually pay more than anywhere else in the world for data roaming, or is this just another case of reporters blindly pursuing a 'hot' news story without a careful examination of the facts? In order to answer this question I checked out the initial OECD report that is causing all the fuss, and practically laughed out loud; I lol'd, if you will. Firstly, the above graph that I found on the CBC (without appropriate legend) was included in the OECD report, along with a nice title that explained it depicted the average price for one megabyte of data in ONE SESSION. This sounds a bit screwy, right? Who travels, picks up their phone, and in one go eats up a whole megabyte of data, then doesn't use data again. Here's what the start of the OECD press release said:
"For one megabyte of data, for example, the equivalent of sending 10 photos … Canadians travelling abroad pay the most (US$24.61), followed by Americans ($22.06) and Mexicans ($19.85). Greeks abroad pay the least ($4.17), followed by people from Iceland ($4.42) and Luxembourg ($4.46). The wide difference in prices, according to the report, can be explained by Greek mobile phone companies being charged less by wholesale operators than Canadian operators and passing those savings on to customers. Or it could reflect greater competition in the Greek retail roaming market than in Canada."
OR, it could just be that this whole "1MB in one session" price comparison is a completely flawed way to assess the situation, and basically amounts to a statistical screwup. Reporters love eye-popping figures like these, and with all the telecom-hating going on in Canada at the moment, the start of this OECD paper makes for the perfect news story. Unfortunately it seems that most reporters didn't read the fine print, and/or didn't read past the report's first paragraph. So what's the deal? Well first of all, who the heck downloads 1 MB in one shot on their phone? When people use data while traveling they open emails, update twitter feeds, check facebook, update their linkedin profile, or view a few websites. None of these functions use even close to 1MB at one time, and unless you download several pictures (tough to do in one shot), a video, or a song file, it's pretty difficult to hit this "1 MB in one session" mark. The ridiculousness of downloading JUST 1MB in one session while traveling aside, these figures fail to take into account how Canadians actually travel. Certainly you will get those people who go to Asia or Europe or wherever, use data, and see a horrifying cell bill upon their return. The OECD refers to this as "bill shock". And if these people spend 5 minutes on the phone with their providers, Rogers, Bell, Telus, etc. will retroactively put a roaming package on your account to reduce the charge significantly. Then, next time this person travels you can bet they will get a prepaid roaming package before their trip.