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Mobile roaming is changing, and not for the better

By Dario Betti, CEO, Mobile Ecosystem Forum

Mobile roaming is 40 years old—it started in Scandinavia in 1982—and for many of us, using our mobile phones when travelling overseas is something we expect. Yet some customers travelling to the USA and some European countries have already experienced challenges: no phone calls or SMS, or even data with specific operators and certain devices (even in areas that were perfectly covered before). Many mobile operators are decommissioning their older networks (2G and 3G) in favour of more efficient 4G and 5G networks. These new networks are not yet fully supported for roaming by all operators.

Personal experience

When I landed at an airport in Las Vegas, I received an SMS from my mobile operator: Please note, major operators in the US have closed their 3G networks so your services might be impacted. This pretty vague message was followed by a link to a website that unfortunately was not working. Another mobile operator (I have several phones) informed me that most probably I would not be able to make phone calls or send/receive SMS within the USA, but I could still get data, however that would depend on which phone I had. A follow up SMS confirmed prices of $6 per MB, or about $1200 to watch a Netflix video in low quality for 90 minutes (equivalent to my phone bill for the next 10 years). A third mobile operator was not much better: the gist was that I was lucky to get an SMS in the first place, and perhaps I’d be better off using a messaging app over WiFi. This is not a unique experience – mobile operators are letting roaming fall to pieces.

So, what should mobile operators do to ensure they take the industry forward, not backward and deliver to consumers what they really want and need, which in turn safeguards the future of the industry?

Supporting VoLTE roaming is a must

Not supporting international roaming has multiple effects for high value customers: not receiving an SMS can block a bank transaction or a payment, voice communication is still key for business and private communications. Patchy or non-existent coverage while roaming is unacceptable. Customers rely on mobile devices; both voice calling and SMS are basic and intrinsic services expected from mobile phones. Mobile operators are reducing their value by not providing a consistent connection. Support for 4G and 5G roaming is necessary – or customers will go elsewhere.

Build services

Operators need to build a robust and reliable network in order to provide a universal service. Sign commercial deals that will get customers connected overseas. If customers can reliably travel to any country and use their mobile phone for voice and SMS, they will likely be happy to pay the premium.

Alternatively, and this is better suited to low-cost operators, rather than spending time, money, and resources building a universal network, these operators could build packages of OTT services, such as free WhatsApp messaging and voice calling, so that users can use their data allowance (already carried via the 4G network).

Whichever option mobile operators take, pricing strategy will be very important. Pricing these services needs to reflect the market, the competition, and the level of service the customer can expect. Set prices too low and it threatens to bring the market down. Too high and customers will find alternative workarounds.

Create easy to use international packages 

In the age of apps and easier self-service and customer experience, some mobile operators are struggling to share information, and build packages that allow users to feel in control during their international trips. Daily passes, capped spending and many other tools have been created by operators to give customers the level of transparency and worry-free billing that can make roaming easy and enjoyable service. Operators should feel free to copy best practices.

While roaming is a premium service, don’t gouge customers

A few operators are giving roaming a bad name, but it is every operator’s duty to control and manage their roaming prices. Prices are negotiated by two sides: the originating and the visited network – ultimately it is a common goal to get a fair and affordable price for roaming.  Operators need to do a lot of additional work and maintenance to ensure roaming services work effectively. If a customer is paying a premium, they better receive the service they expect.

Keep it simple and be clear 

One of the major challenges from the 2000s was the sheer complexity of overlapping technologies consumers had to contend with. They had to have the right handset with the correct signal banding for the destination country, the right mobile operator with the correct services enabled, and the right products to provide the connection. Today, people don’t want to deal with such complexity. These issues were ironed out more than 10 years ago, so people don’t expect to have to deal with this complexity anymore.

Whatever solution is chosen (building roaming networks, or putting together OTT packages for roaming customers), it’s important to communicate with the customer and let them know what they need to do. For example, allow them to download configuration settings before they set off, tell them exactly what is included in the package or what services work in which countries. For example, some countries, like the UK, are dominated by WhatsApp while others have their own popular equivalent; in Korea the majority of people use KakaoTalk, commonly known as KaTalk.

Keeping pace with technology can be tricky and developments move at a different pace around the world. In South Africa, the majority of mobile users use 3G, with a sizeable percentage still using 2G. In the USA, on the other hand, 3G networks are largely decommissioned. 

But technology should not be an excuse for poor service. Customers can easily compare services across different operators to find one that works, is reasonably priced, and helps rather than hinders them while travelling.

It’s time for the industry to take a long hard look at roaming and make a serious commitment to ‘do better’ and create a new ‘golden age’ of roaming that’s good for customers and therefore, by extension, the industry as well. But while customers are waiting for the mobile phone sector to pull its socks up, here is what can be done now to reduce roaming risks:

Check if your phone is 4G ready

Check if your phone shows a 4G or LTE sign, if your phone is 5G ready you are ready to travel. But see the next steps. 

Check if your phone is older than 2015 

Even some of the 4G devices might not work well. It is mostly the earlier models, sold before 2015 that do not support ‘Voice over LTE’ (or VoLTE). Time to buy a new device if you want to roam freely in USA and other places. If you are an Apple fan, from the iPhone 8 onwards they are all compatible. If your phone is good, it is now time to check your operator.

Check if your Mobile Operator is supporting VoLTE for Roaming

Not all operators have ‘turned on’ the Voice over LTE function for roaming. About 700 networks have launched VoLTE in their market domestically, but in 2021 only 50 operators globally support roaming on 4G. A check on the operator’s website or a visit to the shop might help, but often you might have to call customer service to get a proper answer.

Get the pricing right

The choice of roaming package is still important. Regulation made roaming in the European Union simpler to understand, but if you are travelling outside the EU or are arriving from another country prices might still be complex and often disproportionally high. Many operators have built international packages and options that make it easier to budget for international travelling – but not all.

Roaming is possible when you travel, but not always straightforward and almost certainly not cheap, let alone free.  Do your research before you leave for the airport, ferry terminal or rail station, and speak to your operator. 

Voice calling and SMS are seen by many as fundamental services that all operators should be providing. By getting roaming right the industry can keep customers happy and stop them looking for alternatives when they travel, that might just replace their provider when they get home. 


Dario Betti is CEO of MEF (Mobile Ecosystem Forum) a global trade body established in 2000 and headquartered in the UK with members across the world. As the voice of the mobile ecosystem, it focuses on cross-industry best practices, anti-fraud and monetisation. The Forum provides its members with global and cross-sector platforms for networking, collaboration and advancing industry solutions.