Think locally if you want to phone globally

The Sunday Times
Mark Paul, November 21, 2004

It pays to do some research when using your moblie phone abroad

THE love affair most Irish people have with their mobile phones can be put under severe stress when the object of affection is taken overseas.

Those who make or receive phone calls while abroad can find themselves stuck with a bill that is 10 to 20 times higher than normal on their return, according to the Consumers’ Association of Ireland. Even Dermott Jewell, the chief executive of the association, has been stung when travelling to Belgium. “You learn by your mistakes,” he said. “I won’t be caught out again.”

Since most people cannot bear the idea of casting aside their beloved phones even for a weekend, it is worth investigating ways to cut charges.

The price of roaming depends on whether you make or receive the call, what country you are in, what foreign network you are roaming on, what time of day it is and where the person is that you called. Add to that the different prices for prepaid and bill phones, and it’s easy to see why people can become confused.

Don’t think that text messages are necessarily the answer, either. One news journalist was presented with a bill for €350 recently that had been racked up in just three weeks of frugal calling but copious texting in the Middle East.

Those who are planning on spending a considerable period of time in a foreign country are better advised to purchase a local Sim card, according to Diarmuid MacShane, the editor of consumer website Valueireland.com. “You will not be charged for receiving calls while you’re abroad and will be able to make internal calls at the local rate,” he said.

Just make sure the network provider has not locked the handset and always inquire as to whether the new Sim will expire after a certain period.

Investing in cheap international calling cards can save you a lot of money when calling home, but the drawback is that you will not be contactable.

It is possible to divert all calls to voicemail before you leave but you need to factor in the cost of retrieving messages while abroad, which is usually charged at the normal roaming rate, and not the national rate.

Those taking shorter trips should contact their network operator to ask for a list of charges for networks in their destination before going abroad, according to ComReg, the communications regulator.

Most mobiles are set up to automatically select the strongest partner network signal when overseas — rather than the least expensive. Once customers are aware of which network it is cheapest to roam with, they can choose this network manually and periodically check to make sure it doesn’t revert to the stronger signal.

Vodafone has essentially carved the world into five different zones under the new Vodafone World plan, with one rate per zone for Vodafone networks, and another, much higher rate for other networks.

The problem is it doesn’t have networks in every country in that zone, leaving customers to pay a higher rate in many circumstances. In some Vodafone zones, it is more expensive to receive calls than to make them. In zone 4, for example, which encompasses Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Australasia, it is €1.99 per minute to receive a call, on any network. However, it is €1.69 per minute to phone Ireland on a Vodafone-owned network.

If you want to call a neighbouring country while in that zone it costs €2.99 per minute on a Vodafone network and €3.29 on one of its rivals. Sending text messages with Vodafone while abroad is 49c from anywhere in the world on a Vodafone-owned network and 59c on others. With prepaid mobiles, costs can be considerably higher and coverage is often restricted to the main destinations.

Daragh Kelly, a product manager with Vodafone Ireland, says that in the majority of cases, rates came down with the introduction of Vodafone World. He added: “Most of our customers are in Europe and rates there came down by 10%.”

O2 has introduced a flat rate, three-tiered system for the most popular European destinations. When roaming in these countries, customers pay 59c, 79c or 99c per minute, depending on whether it is an O2-owned network.

If a customer is travelling to a country outside of this area, prices rise again considerably. Paul Farrell, the head of marketing at O2 Ireland says that the firm hopes to have all “significant” world networks on the three-tiered flat rate scheme by next March.

O2 prepaid customers have a much clearer pricing structure: 99c per minute across the board and 39c for texts. The only problem is that Speakeasy roaming is restricted to a small selection of the major European countries.

With coverage in 98 countries and more than 180 partner networks, Meteor, the smallest of the three Irish service- providers, offers very competitive rates. Sending a text message while roaming with Meteor is 30c per message, from anywhere, to anywhere in the world.

This compares very favourably with O2 and Vodafone. To call Ireland from America is €1.29 with Meteor, compared with Vodafone and O2’s best price of €1.59.

Meteor says it is the cheapest network with which to roam, on average. “Our rivals are not passing on the benefits of their global presence to their customers. We are not a global company, but worldwide, we can compete,” it said. Within Europe, however, Meteor cannot top O2’s flat rates.

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