Sunday, 14 March 2010

Browsing the web for $10,000 an hour

Over the years I've seen those stories about travelers who make the mistake of using mobile data services outside of their home countries and end up with ridiculously big phone bills. But I didn't realize how easily it could happen until my colleague, Nilofer Merchant (link), got her phone bill last week.

Nilofer recently made a business trip through Canada. While waiting in the Toronto airport for her flight home, she fired up her laptop. The WiFi service in the airport costs about $10 a day, so she decided to use her AT&T data card instead.

Big mistake. Big, big, big mistake.

When her phone bill arrived last week, the total charge for that airport session was $10,609.27.

Needless to say, this was a topic of pretty intense discussion at the office last week.

The stories I'd heard about people with big roaming bills were usually about someone on vacation who used data for a couple of weeks. I was very surprised to find that you could run up such a huge bill in just a few hours. Here's how it happens:

AT&T's Data Connect plan gives five gigabytes of data transfer a month, with additional data priced at five cents per megabyte. But when you're roaming in Canada, there is no prepaid data allowance, and the charge is $15 per megabyte -- 300 times higher than the charge at home.

Nilofer supposedly transferred 707 megabytes in that airport session, which adds up to over $10,000.

I'm not sure how she could have generated that much traffic in a few hours. She said she was doing normal business tasks, not watching videos. It's barely theoretically possible for someone to use that much data in the time available. PC World reports that AT&T's network can transfer about 1,400 kilobits per second (link), which means 707 megabytes could theoretically be transferred in a little bit over an hour. But that assumes a single continuous connection, running at full speed for the entire time. You're not likely to get that in a real-world browsing session, which is full of starts and stops.

You'd think AT&T would warn a customer when they're building up this sort of charge, but that's not the case. The only notification was two form e-mails AT&T sent after the data session was already over. The first said her data service had been shut off due to excessive charges, and the second --dated one minute after the first one -- warned of high usage. That message claimed that "AT&T has sent your end user multiple text messages regarding their high level of international data usage." No text messages were ever received, and in fact I don't know how you would send text messages to a data card.

But the biggest question is not how much data was transferred, or why AT&T doesn't notify customers properly; it's why the roaming charges are so high in the first place. There are a lot of excuses given for that by the operators, but what it comes down to is a cooperative effort between the operators to fleece each-others' customers when they roam. When AT&T customers roam to Canada, they pay 300 times the home rate for data. Meanwhile, when Canadians on the Rogers network roam to the US, they pay 200 times the home rate for data -- unless they have Rogers new One Rate plan, which eliminates roaming charges in the US (link).

The interesting thing about the new Rogers plan, which was introduced last month, is that it proves it's possible to create reasonable roaming charges throughout North America. The operators just choose not to. Because they make a lot of money from it.

The data roaming charges, and their impact on your bill, are not completely hidden by the operators, but they come pretty close. The information is scattered in several locations, and little or no effort is made to explain what the charges mean in practical terms. To find the charge at Rogers, you have to look on their website here, click on the "Legal Disclaimer" link in the tiny type at the bottom of the page, and scroll down to footnote 4. Unless you're technical enough to understand the difference between MB and kb, you may not even realize that roaming costs extra.

AT&T's site is almost as obscure. The company's page with tips on international roaming is here. It discloses the charges for roaming, but doesn't explain how those charges compare to home-country charges. As is the case with Rogers, you're expected to spot the KB vs. MB distinction, and know what it means.

AT&T also provides a helpful map showing its coverage in the US and Canada. Nowhere does it warn of the roaming charges for data in Canada.

The closest thing I could find to a warning about charges was another window with "laptop travel tips" that contains this message: "Your LaptopConnect service provides access to email, Web browsing, and VPN applications that can use a significant amount of data, so remember -international data roaming can get expensive quickly."

A more honest notification might be printed in big red letters, and would say something like this:

"Using wireless data outside your home country is about as smart as juggling chainsaws. In a single day, you can build up charges large enough to buy us a new car. We're constantly amazed that people keep falling for the roaming thing, but you know what PT Barnum supposedly said about suckers. If after reading this you're still stupid enough to use roaming data, please stop by our headquarters the next time you're in Dallas and we'll buy you a drink (although knowing you, we can probably stick you with the tab for that as well.)"

There's a continuous buzz online from people who have been caught by the roaming trap.

Adam Savage, co-host of the television show Mythbusters, had a similar incident last year (link). After he raised a stink on Twitter, the charges were dropped.

You can read some more examples here and here and here and here and here. It makes you wonder why some politician hasn't taken up this issue. A nice round of Congressional hearings would be fun (I'm looking at you, Nancy Pelosi).

In response to complaints in Europe, the EU recently regulated roaming fees and capped roaming data charges at one Euro per megabyte, about a tenth of AT&T's charge (link). As a rugged, individualistic American, I'm generally skeptical of the EU's reliance on the dead hand of regulation. But in this case, I congratulate my friends in Europe, and I say bring on the bureaucrats.

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