Where the wild data charges roam

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Above: Modern smartphones can connect almost everywhere from anywhere. Photo illustration by SIphotography/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1094 for May 23, 2017

There’s been a lot of conversation in media, both traditional and social, about the phone bill racked up by Minister of Tourism Shamfa Cudjoe. The bill, clocking in at an eye-watering $59,000 was the charge for using her smartphone, during a four-day business visit to the Bahamas.

Some of the negative commentary is justified. The public is entitled to expect that a minister of government would manage personal matters with the same focus and diligence that is expected of them in their public duties.

In this case, there is considerable blur between the two responsibilities. Cudjoe argues that her use of the phone was in alignment with normal care, including the use of WiFi instead of a data plan where it was possible. She declared that she is as stunned as anyone by the bill for the four-day use of her phone on Bahamian soil.

But a government minister has access to resources, counsel and briefings that the average smartphone user does not. If ministers are not thoroughly briefed on the use of their taxpayer funded phones and the pitfalls they are likely to face in the course of their duties, then that’s a lapse of governance that should be speedily rectified.

No doubt a Tourism Minister, at a tourism conference, might need clarifications, supporting documents and general briefing guidance to make effective use of her time while on the island.

The fees that constitute that bill break out this way, $1,111.06 for voice calls, VAT at $6,562.13 and roaming data at $50,616.61.

The Bahamas charges TSTT TT$63.00 per megabyte for data use, a rate that’s eight times greater than the cost of data use in the US, UK and Guyana.

To pay more than that, you’d have to be browsing YouTube in Russia, Australia or China, where the fees rise to $94.50 per MB.

Today, “over Internet Protocols,” or OIP gets appended to a lot of the services that once required dedicated connections. A lot of voice calls, television and other data based services now travel on dedicated channels of the wider Internet and represent a significant savings for the businesses that need that kind of connectivity.

The savings are so dramatic that some voice services, such as Skype, Viber and WhatsApp, operate international voice and text services for free, dropping the floor out of what was once an enormously lucrative business for telecommunications companies.

Local competition for business has driven the cost of calling and data use steadily downward over the last decade, so users within a geographic area can quickly get used to making unfettered use of their smartphones without incurring unusually high fees.

In a world in which you can stream music, browse Facebook and download your email without expecting to offer up your first born on bended knee to a telco, there is a comfort zone that can build into an expectation that this happens everywhere.

It does not.

Once you leave your home network and your phone must interconnect with another provider to provide you with voice and data; there is a fee for that service.

This happens on an incremental basis when calls go between bmobile and Digicel locally, but the fees soar when roaming kicks in across nation borders. TMobile in the US recently announced that it would drop roaming charges, but limits data to 2G. The company’s customers can pay for faster speeds.

If a company can keep those connections within its network, the costs drop dramatically. That’s why a Digicel roaming plan works so well (and so affordably) in Caribbean nations which have a Digicel presence.

Digicel forgoes larger roaming fees for customer convenience while they remain on their network and assures travellers within its geographic reach that they are part of a regional business.

Damian Blackburn, formerly of Digicel Haiti, now runs Cable Bahamas, but the company has no official presence in the island chain.

So what’s a traveller to do?

When I travel, I put the smartphone in airplane mode before I board the plane and don’t switch it off until the wheels have stopped rolling on the tarmac on my return.

While travelling, I turn on WiFi and use either sanctioned or opportunistic connections I encounter to communicate. The rather few people I need to speak to know how to find me this way, and all the others can wait.

If you must receive calls while travelling, consider shutting off data roaming, now a separate setting on modern smartphones, unless you absolutely need it.

Alternatively, if you have an unlocked phone (every frequent traveller should have one), then pick up a local SIM in the country you’re in. I used a Virgin Mobile metoo phone in the US for years before pervasive WiFi and WhatsApp connectivity made that pointless.

If you do need to transfer data on a roaming connection, then make use of the limit warnings feature in your phone to let you know whan data use is approaching limits you may find uncomfortable at the interconnection rates for the country you happen to be in.