Cautionary tales about data roaming for leisure travellers

Travelers who are planning to take their smartphones, tablets or laptops on holiday overseas over the festive season and haven’t factored in the cost of data roaming could find their trip turning out to be a lot more expensive than they expected.

People still tend to think they talk a lot on the phone when they actually communicate mostly by email, instant messaging, SMS and Skype. In reality data accounts for 80% of the cost of roaming. A WhatsApp message only uses one kilobit of data, but the mobile operators charge in chunks of 25 kilobits, so it actually costs about R3.20c per message. So sending SMSs from abroad is cheaper, at an average of R2.75 per message.

Working in kilobits is confusing, because users are used to thinking in terms of megabytes, so it helps to know that one megabyte is equivalent to 1000 kilobits. A Skype voice call takes up about one megabyte of data per minute, and a Skype video session takes up to three megabytes per minute.

Other data hungry activities include the updating of applications, operating system and device software. Some application updates happen automatically in the background when they are open and need to be turned off properly to stop this happening.

It’s important to exit applications and not just quit them. Skype can consume 500 megabytes of data when it is just checking which of a user’s contacts are online. Large attachments can also chew up data while downloading without the recipient being aware of it. If the kids are coming along on holiday, there’s also the risk of them downloading videos to Mom’s or Dad’s iPad or spending hours on Facebook with their friends.

roaming costs vary from country to country and from one operator to another. So before going overseas travelers would be wise to check roaming rates for the places they are planning to visit. This includes reading the fine print for hidden costs.

Another tip is to download a data usage app before leaving and download city guides that can be viewed offline. It’s great to keep downloading Google Maps to find directions and to share the holiday with friends on Facebook, but each web page downloaded and updated takes up one megabyte or more of data.

Statistics show that 68% of travelers switch off their mobile devices or leave them at home rather than worry about huge roaming bills. But this is increasingly inconvenient in a world that revolves around anytime, anywhere connectivity.

So it’s worth looking at the new services that are becoming available that allow users to roam across multiple mobile networks and multiple countries inexpensively at a known cost, for example execMobile’s PocketWiFi. Limits on data usage can be set per device for the duration of a trip and live feeds can be sent to users with details of their data usage, depending on the service selected.

using Wi-Fi hotspots is tempting, but has downsides like the fact that it is easy for hackers to steal information from a mobile device if the network is not secure, and quality, availability and cost is often questionable. For example, it could turn out that the Wi-Fi is only on offer in the public areas of a hotel and not in the rooms or that only the first 30 minutes or so of usage is free.

Another option is to buy local SIMs for each country, but each SIM takes two to 24 hours for the network to activate, and the setting up process can be complex, especially when the instructions are in a foreign language.

MTN Roaming

We have been asked by MTN subscribers for options when roaming:

Voicemail Callback

Normally users must dial +2783 1000 000 to listen to voicemail – they will pay for an outgoing call from the country they are in at international voice rates. Instead, users can dial the roaming shortcut code of *111*100#, navigate through the menu options and select Voicemail Callback. Voicemail will then call from South Africa so that users do not have to pay for an outgoing call from the country they are in.

Divert all calls to voicemail and use iMail

Before leaving South Africa, divert all calls to go to voicemail (unconditional diverts) in the settings on a device. This means that whenever someone calls, the call will be diverted straight to voicemail. Users won’t have to pay for an incoming calls while roaming.

iMail – upon diverting all calls to a voicemail box, customers can visit MTN’s Web site, register for MTN iMail and log in at any time to listen to messages on the Internet instead of on the phone.

SMS only roaming

Simply dial *111*14# to activate SMS roaming. Once activated, all voice and data capabilities on the phone will be switched off, and users will only be able to send and receive SMSs


Switch off all automatic updates on your device or computer – automatic updates in the background while connected to the Internet can cost you a fortune. By switching these updates off, users can save on their roaming bill.

Make 100% sure to know what the data rates are! (see our previous blog for MTN rates).

Roamers use Data more than Voice

Key findings related to global mobile roaming traffic analysis released late in 2011 indicate that data consumption has shown rapid year-on-year growth (97%) and has for the first time exceeded voice traffic volumes (for roaming sessions). In contrast to the rise of mobile data traffic, voice traffic growth remained flat across the period.

The evolution of smarter mobile devices is clearly changing the way we communicate when travelling. The decline in the popularity of voice speaks to the rise of alternative, yet immediate, communications platforms such as instant messaging and social networking, while SMS and email have continued to erode the volumes of voice traffic for roaming sessions. The huge increase in download volumes also demonstrates just how popular apps are becoming, with consumers wishing to download and interact with them even while abroad.

It should however also be noted that SMS traffic volumes have continued to grow (by 23 %), illustrating the continued popularity of this communication channel (and why operators continue to charge excessively for SMS sent when abroad). This growth can however in our opinion be attributed to the following related observations:

– Roaming subscribers are using double the data that they were using a year ago, however

– users in their home networks consume 300 x the data that they do when they are abroad!

For the industry there is enormous potential in removing this disparity and empowering users to roam without having to resort to SMS communication. This can only be achieved by providing pricing choice and transparency to the user, so removing the current issue of ‘bill-shock’.” The primary form of defence for 40% of corporate users and 60% of other users is to simply turn their phones off!

For those who require a data connection when abroad, pre-paid solutions which allow a user to know the costs associated with roaming data are an obvious way to ensure roaming fears are left behind.

Whether you are a traveller or a mobile executive, social or work productivity when abroad can be increased by ensuring a reliable, fast roaming internet connection. Further, the increase in data traffic can be attributed to the proliferation of Voice over IP applications (Viber, Skype, Fring etc) which all allow voice \video communication, once a data connection exists.

Int Voice and Data costs

Travelling this December?

We have had many requests for a simple explanation of mobile operators international voice & data costs. Ensure you know what you will be charged before leaving on your next trip to avoid “bill shock” when you return.

The MTN and Vodacom’s roaming rates for calls, SMS and data are given below. It is free it receive an SMS when abroad, however MMS are charged as per a previous post and normally based on data costs.

MTN                      Local       Int.        Receive    Send      Data

                              Call          Call       Call            SMS       (PerMB)

Africa                     R 5.00      R 7.00     R 4.00        R 2.00      R 104.00

Asia                        R 8.25      R 25.50   R 4.00        R 3.50      R 140.00

Europe                  R 8.00       R 23.50   R 4.00        R 2.75      R 108.00

Oceania                 R 7.50       R 23.50   R 4.00        R 2.75      R 160.00

South America       R 8.25       R 38.00    R 4.00       R 2.75      R 120.00

North America       R 11.00     R 20.00    R 4.00       R 3.00      R 140.00

Local Africa**         R 3.00      R 5.00      Free            R 1.50       R 10.00

Exclusions*            R 9.50      R 25.50     R 4.00       R 2.75       R 104.00

* Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe

**Botswana (Mascom), Zambia, Swaziland, Rwanda and Uganda.

Vodacom          Local    Int.        Receive   Send     Data

                             Call       Call        Call          SMS       (PerMB)

Neighbours         R 6.00    R 6.00    R 6.00       R 2.75     R 51.20

Sub-Sahara         R 8.00    R 10.00  R 6.00       R 2.75     R 102.40

Rest of World     R 8.00    R 23.00   R 6.00      R 2.75     R 128.00

Saver rates reduce call costs by 10% and data to R17.50 but only if the user roams on a Vodafone partner network in supported countries.

While voice costs are high, our finding indicate that data costs normally account for 80% of a roaming bill!

Beware also alternative VoIP based voice services (like Viber, Skype etc. ) that may use the mobile data network to communicate – these data costs can be far higher for “voice” than using native mobile roaming voice services.

The average user will consume around 20MB per day for occasional laptop / tablet /phone daily web browsing or emails. However, engaging in online activities such as social media, file downloading or online streaming may result in substantially higher data usage. 20MB at an average of R100 /MB (as per the above) will result in a daily cost of R2000!

Roaming? use Voicemail 2SMS or 2email

International travellers – don’t clock up expensive bills listening to voicemail when abroad!

Missed calls that are diverted to your Voicemail are billed as two international calls: one to your phone and the second for diverting to your Voicemail (back in South Africa)! Accessing your Voicemail while abroad (even short codes like 121) is also not free and is charged as an international roaming call to South Africa. Vodacom customers in Europe pay R23/min while Vodacom Passport customers’ are only slightly better off as calls to South Africa incur a once-off connection fee (R17.50) plus the per unit peak, non-Vodacom, mobile rate applicable to their contract – or at least R20 for the first minute! MTN costs are similar for using the international mailbox number, however customers can elect to have their voicemail call them back and pay roaming receiving call charges. However all are expensive options.

Vodacom Voicemail 2 SMS allows you to receive your English voicemail messages in the form of text messages. Messages are delivered via SMS but you can still dial into the voicemail service on 121 to listen to messages if needed. Receiving an SMS when abroad is free. Use Voicemail 2 SMS to receive & screen Voicemail but ensure you have diverted all incoming calls to Voicemail by setting up an unconditional divert – use **21*082131 (last 7 digits of your mobile number # and dial.) or use your phone’s menu. There is no limit to the number of messages converted in a month and the service is fairly priced – subscription fee of R35.00 (incl. VAT) per month applies. Simply SMS ‘MAIL’ to 31118 or contact your Service Provider.

Alternative providers such as Voicecloud offer other Voicemail 2 email options ( if translation is problematic! Voicecloud offer voicemail messages sent to your email as audio mp3 files ($9.95pm), automatic transcription (50-60% accuracy for $19.95) or human assisted (99% accuracy for $29.95). All are emails and require data bandwidth to download.

Using MTN’s free iMail web service, you can read your messages on the web or set up your VoiceMail messages to be sent to you as an MMS or an email attachment. Unconditional divert to voicemail can be done by entering +27 83 14 (last nine (9) digits of your mobile number). Again, a low cost data connection is required to prevent data roaming cost shocks on your mobile – audio files and MMS both use cellular data, so a low cost (Wi-Fi) connection is essential.

A separate mobile Roaming Contract?

By 1 July 2014, consumers may be able to choose a different roaming contract from their domestic contract, without changing their number or SIM!

Neelie Kroes, European Commission VP for the Digital Agenda outlined plans for “profound structural changes” to the European roaming market. Clearly frustrated at the lack of progress in the mobile industry in eliminating what she termed “roaming rip offs”, Kroes said that the Commission has been forced to move beyond price caps to focus on fostering increasing competition in the market, by making “profound structural changes”.

The proposed changes will need to be agreed by the European Council and Parliament, but are intended to reduce the difference between roaming and national tariffs to zero by 2015. This proposal will make it easier for alternative providers to offer competitive services. This proposal would give mobile operators the right to use other operators’ networks in the EU at regulated wholesale prices, and so encourage more operators to compete. More importantly, it will allow consumers to roam at acceptable rates by signing up with another roaming provider.

The GSMA is however not in total agreement as it believes It would be counter-productive to combine stringent price caps with structural measures to foster competition in the market.

To stay updated on this important development follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Who said Skype was free?

“Why do we have this fixation with expecting Internet connectivity to be free? …..There is no such thing as a free lunch. Magic costs money.” This is from Alan Knott-Craig’s recent article titled “The truth about data networks” posted on his blog.

Similarly, I believe too many people perceive Skype to be free. While this is true in the abstract, Skype consumes bandwidth which is definitely not free when you are a mere mortal with a monthly bandwidth cap or even worse when you are roaming and paying exorbitant data prices!

Most users have home DSL or 3G data sticks which provide between 2 – 5GB of bandwidth a month and cost around R150-R400 /month. The price of this bandwidth per MB has decreased dramatically and is now somewhere between 7 – 40c per MB.

This is in stark contrast to the cost of bandwidth when roaming internationally, where costs are around R120/MB! Even Vodacom’s best offer to the market is priced at R17,500 per GB when roaming. In short, you need to be aware of bandwidth costs when abroad.

Many people however resort to Skype to communicate from abroad, but let’s consider Skype’s bandwidth consumption and the associated costs:

Skype uses 0-0.5 KB (kilobytes)/sec while idle (this is used mainly for contact presence updates).

  • That is around 20MB per day or 500MB per month!
  • This usage may account for up to a quarter of your monthly allocation!
  • It could also cost you R2400 per day when roaming!

A Skype audio call requires 400-700KB of bandwidth per minute.

  • Let’s say about 20c /minute to call anyone anywhere – that a good deal (but still not free)
  • If roaming however, that is about R76 per min!

A Skype video call requires 1-4MB/min.

  • A video call consumes about 4x as much bandwidth as an audio call.
  • If roaming you had better feel rich as that is R240 per min!

Our recommendations are as follows:

  1. Exit Skype when not in use (ensure this does not show in your PC tray as an icon) – this will prevent the 500MB monthly data leakage when idle.
  2. Do not use Skype when roaming! You are better off paying your mobile operator R23/minute for a voice call when abroad then the R75/minute the bandwidth will cost you.
  3. Definitely do not use the Skype video calling option if roaming on a foreign data network!
  4. Attempt to find a Wi-Fi hotspot when roaming that provides free bandwidth. The congestion at a public hotspot may make audio/video quality poor, but at least you will not be in for a nasty bill shock when you return home.
  5. If you want some magic, rent our tep pocket wifi – this gives you your own Wi-Fi connection and works out at less than 66c/MB and ensures you remain completely mobile and connected.

We hope this helps.

The calculations if interested are based on Skype recommendations

Skype idle usage:

On average Skype uses 0-0.5 KB (kilobytes)/sec while idle.. The exact bandwidth depends on many factors. Using 0.2 KB/sec to be conservative 0.2*60*60*24 = 17 280.000 KB per day (around 518 MB per month)

Skype voice call usage:

Most people agree Skype consumes about 7-9KB/s on shaped or 12-18KB/s on unshaped connections for voice calls. The average bandwidth is derived by using the lowest & highest usage per user (2.5KB/s / 9.5KB/s) and dividing that by 2. Conversations have troughs and peaks (troughs where one or both people are not saying anything, and the peaks are where one or both people are talking without interruption). To be conservative, the average bandwidth for a 2-person conversation uses (~5KB/s both ways) or a total of 10KB/s. That is (assuming 10KB/s) = 600KB per minute.

Vodacom charge R128/MB for data when roaming > roaming voice call using Skype costs R76 per minute!!!!