Roam If You Want To
By Eric Lin, Sat Sep 25 01:00:00 GMT 2004

Data and roaming each only make up about 10 percent of carrier revenue. As users come to rely on their handset for more than just voice, data while roaming could become more imperative than voice if implemented properly.

One of the greatest advantages of GSM is that it is a nearly-global standard. Users can turn on their handsets almost anywhere and it just works. In a society where it takes less time to fly from the US to Japan than a one way trip on the Orient Express, it is only appropriate that phones are as global as their owners. It serves subscribers well, but it also is a boon to carriers, which make an average of 10 percent of revenues from roaming charges. However when subscribers come home from a trip to discover an additional $300 in voice and SMS charges, or $3000 in GPRS charges, it creates a negative feedback loop.

Users are less likely to actually use their handsets overseas after they've been burned on roaming charges or they'll buy a local prepaid card, robbing their home carrier of revenue either way. As user come to rely on their handsets for more than just voice calls, the roaming experience becomes even more critical. High charges or not, most SIM cards are preloaded with preferred roaming partners, helping subscribers to find a voice network. However without additional information or partnerships, data services are not equally easy to use when roaming.

While GPRS itself may work for roaming subscribers, it's access to a carrier portal that is often more important. There users will check their email, find news -- both from back home as well as their destination, and probably try to find travel information. Roaming agreements that do more than just connect roamers, but connect them to appropriate information, are starting to emerge. Initially they are most easily and most obviously implemented between different divisions of the same carrier. Vodafone just announced subscribers will be able to access home services and data no matter where they are on its 3G network. Other networks in Asia have implemented acces to a user's home portal instead of the current network's.

Currently inter-carrier agreements are expanding to sticking points like short codes or voice mail access. They have yet to fully embrace portals and other data services. Maybe it's because data service (other than SMS) comprise such a small percentage of carriers' income, however as the market shift towards smartphones and faster data networks, this issue will gain importance. There are also technological barriers that make data access more difficult while roaming, but the new IP Multimedia System (IMS) protocol should be able to help carriers overcome these difficulties more easily than today's technology.