Mobile connectivity beyond borders

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Technological developments could facilitate roaming

Verena Weber, OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Directorate

Do you remember the “not-so-good old days”? When you were delayed while travelling abroad and it was too expensive to use your smartphone to check for alternatives online and inform the people you had to meet?

While recently travelling in Germany, I found myself in exactly this situation – in a train that was delayed at a station, but this time with the difference of having a roam-like-at-home plan.

While I was checking online maps to see how I could still make my appointment on time, I was chatting with friends, agreeing on a new meeting place and receiving real-time updates from another friend on the train delays. All of this was included in my normal French mobile plan, without any additional costs.

You might stop reading here and think that you still find yourself in the not-so-good old days because your mobile plan does not allow you to roam abroad. At the OECD, we have been following recent developments in international roaming services and have been comparing them across countries.

Our new report on Developments in International Mobile Roaming (IMR) provides an overview of progress made in the implementation of the OECD recommendation on international mobile roaming. We found that since the 2012 OECD Recommendation, IMR prices have been significantly reduced, either by ensuring effective competition or, in its absence, applying regulation.

Since 2012, different mobile operators across the world have developed ‘Roam Like at Home’ (RLAH) plans, which do not require purchasing ‘add-ons’ and use the subscriber’s domestic mobile package, such as the one described at the beginning of this post.  Our report found that these offers are more prevalent in markets with four rather than three mobile network operators (MNOs), likely a result of the additional competition provided by more players.

Wholesale competition, provided by more MNOs, is also key to enabling Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) develop additional offers.  Since 2014, for example, some MVNOs in countries such as France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have all begun to offer RLAH offers covering continents – Europe, in the case of the Netherlands and France, and most of North and South America in the case of the United States, as well as one MVNO data RLAH offer announced in April 2015 for over 120 countries for users travelling from the United States. A UK operator reported that on average its customers used 500 MB per trip and, the two million that had travelled since the introduction of the RLAH offer, had saved in total the equivalent of USD 2 billion.

In the absence of sufficient competition, the report shows that authorities have applied regulation, for instance, in the European Union and European Economic Area (EEA). The European Union (EU) regulatory initiatives in the international mobile roaming market have provided a benchmark for many countries outside the EU and have highlighted the role that regional bodies can play in significantly reducing prices and creating competition in IMR services. By 15 June 2017, roaming charges in the EU will cease to exist. As an intermediary measure, from April 2016, roaming will become even less expensive: operators will only be able to charge a small additional amount on top of domestic prices- up to €0.05 per minute of calls made, €0.02 per SMS sent, and €0.05 per MB of data (excl. VAT).

The report also found that several new bilateral agreements which have been concluded or are in the process of finalisation should lead to price reductions and provide a paradigm for other countries to follow suit where there is insufficient competition. Some of these bilateral agreements have also been undertaken between countries with free trade arrangements and could provide a framework to follow for other regions.

Finally, we also took a look at new technological developments, which could play a significant role in reducing roaming charges. Take, for instance, the case of SIM cards that can be associated with multiple operators or, going even further, virtual SIM cards. The Apple SIM is a good example for the first case: It enables consumers to choose the mobile network they prefer for data when they want to connect a mobile device such as an iPad. Users can travel between the UK, the US and Japan, availing themselves of the same rates paid by local users without the need to purchase a local SIM card. Virtual SIM cards, like the Xiaomi Roaming Card, also let travellers roam abroad without swapping SIM cards on their mobile devices.

Overall, being connected to the Internet – be it for people or things – becomes more and more indispensable in an increasingly networked world and one in which your car or medical device could include one or more SIM cards. This report addresses the most recent developments and policies to further meet the growing demand for roaming services. We will continue this work at the OECD with our member countries and stakeholders to further ensure IMR better meets the needs of travel across the globe.

Useful links

OECD 2015 Digital Economy Outlook

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