Mobile connectivity beyond borders

Czech detector
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

Dial D for Development

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Development aid?

Not much good has come from the Ebola crisis, save this: It has raised awareness of the fact that we already have a weapon in our hands that could help fight such epidemics – our mobile phones.

There’s already evidence to show that the idea can work. Following the earthquake and cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010, for example, “call-data records” from mobile phones were used to track people’s movements, so allowing experts to “infer, with empirical data and in real-time, where people are, and how many, and where they are probably headed,” according to The Economist. That’s vital information in health crises, where epidemiologists need to know if people are moving into or out of highly infected areas.

The technique has been also been used to follow people’s movements in the wake of natural catastrophes, for example after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. And there’s growing interest in seeing how it could be used to track survivors of extreme weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, especially as climate change threatens to raise the frequency of such disasters.

But there’s a problem. Even if such tracking methods don’t involve eavesdropping on callers’ conversations, they do involve a breach of their privacy. And in the case of the Ebola outbreak, that seems to have been a major obstacle in preventing mobile operators from releasing their phone records.

There’s also the problem that for everyone involved – mobile operators, government regulators and researchers – this is still somewhat uncharted territory. There’s a general recognition that call-data records have potential to ease suffering during epidemics and after calamities but, as The Economist again notes, “the data are unlikely to be released without stronger leadership that brings together operators, regulators and researchers”.

Still, even if the Ebola crisis has highlighted what remains to be done, it’s impressive to see the ways in which mobiles are already being used to collect data in developing countries. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, according to the International Telecommunications Union, mobile-phone penetration now approaches 90% in developing countries (and 69% in Africa). This doesn’t mean that nine out of ten people have handsets. But even setting aside all those people and businesses with second or third phones, it’s clear that unprecedented numbers of people now have a device in their pocket that’s not just a phone but also a powerful little computer.

That’s potentially important for developing countries, many of which lack the infrastructure and personnel to compile adequate statistics. As the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan has noted, widely cited poverty data for Africa for 2005 relies on robust statistics from just 39 of the continent’s countries, with only 11 able to supply comparable data for the same year.

These data holes make it difficult to measure progress and to identify priorities for development. In response, there have been growing calls for a “data revolution”, which would require action on a range of fronts, including greater investment in government statistical offices in developing countries and making better use of “Big Data” and innovative technologies, like mobile phones.

Encouragingly, there are signs that some of this is already happening. For example, an SMS-based survey in Tunisia investigated remittances, an area where hard facts are notoriously scarce and where estimates of how money migrants are sending back home are just that – estimates. It found that more than a quarter of remittances are sent back by hand, more than the total sent via Western Union. Insights like that could help to provide more accurate data on what is an important source of income in many developing countries.

Mobile phones are also being used to “crowd source” data on price changes, which, as Gillian Jones reports, can be used to “compile near real-time consumer price inflation data”. Local residents take photos of price tags in shops and markets and send them to a central data store. There, they are analysed to provide data on price changes as well as scarcities. Field agents are paid a few cents for each photo they send, but that can add up to an income of as much as $25 a month. And how are they paid? Over their phones, of course.

Useful links

Global Call for Innovations: The Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) has launched a global call for innovations to highlight organizational approaches and new technologies to help realise the data revolution. It is seeking case studies in crowd sourcing; data management; monitoring and reporting; open data; real-time data; remote sensing; research standards; visualization; skills development; and technical infrastructure.

Informing a Data Revolution and the Innovations Inventory – PARIS21

Clean water, cold vaccines, cell phones = a simple way to save lives (OECD Insights blog)

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development – The Global Fight against Poverty