Some Thoughts on Data Roaming Costs From A Technical Point Of View

This is a follow up to a previous post in which I described a new 5€ a month roaming offer I've subscribed to which allows me to use my included voice minutes, SMS and my 1 GB mobile data bucket not only in my home country (Germany) but also in other EU countries.

Previously the all inclusive bundle + 1 GB of data traffic I've subscribed to was only valid in Germany, all traffic and phone calls abroad were charged separately. That means that when I had been abroad for two weeks I had to pay for my full subscription even though I was not in the country. In other words, I had to pay for two weeks of service without being able to use it.

What the new roaming offer now effectively does from a psychological point of view is to give the two weeks worth of my subscription to the network operator abroad who delivers the service (i.e. Internet access, voice calls, etc) to me instead.Think about this idea for a minute!

From a technical point of view this works out as I am not using the radio network at home, which is the most expensive part in the transmission chain. Instead I'm using the radio network of a network operator in another country. On average, that is neither more nor less expensive than using the radio access network at home. Note that I'm looking at this from a technical point of view, what network operators charge each other for roaming is another matter entirely.

From a technical point of view, the cost of using the mobile network at home or abroad is almost the same. The only difference is that my data still flows through a gateway located in the network of the home operator which then connects to the Internet. But data traffic on the backbone is cheap and the 5 euros extra a month easily cover that.

It's clear that mobile network operators don't especially like this because now they forward money they could previously keep to themselves. But this change is very much in line with the desire to have a single EU economy which has also triggered changes in other areas as well. An example is the banking sector, where already many years ago, extra charges for money transfers between EU countries were abolished. Another example is extra charges for use of credit cards in other EU countries, which also no longer exist.

Let me set this into a historical context by looking back only 30 years: In the 1980's there was no interoperability between mobile networks of different countries in Europe and it was in many cases even forbidden to take 'mobile' phones (i.e. big equipment in trunks of cars) accross a border! Unbelievable from today's point of view.

GSM changed this mindset of "our [nation's] frequencies, our [nation's] network" to "we all build networks based on the same standard and enable our subscribers to use their devices in other networks abroad". A radical shift to something we take for granted that didn't come easy and lots of battles of words had to be fought over it. Compared to this, the change of the current mindset from "subscribers pay for national service" to "subscribers pay for EU service" seems much less dramatic and it might even seem strange 30 years from now why it was so difficult to achieve this.

But as strange as it might seem 30 years from now I'm sure there will still be many battles of words to be fought before we arrive at this point. But we are getting there one step at a time!