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.

Public WiFi puts SA users in danger

InSites Consulting (April-May 2011) indicated that almost half of the users worldwide connect to the Internet using portable devices as the primary connection device, notebooks being the most popular (41%), followed by netbooks (3%), smartphones (2%) and tablets (1%).

South Africans are warned to exercise caution when accessing WiFi in spaces such as airports, as increasing numbers of local users risk having sensitive personal information captured.

Logging in to check bank balances, online shopping or sending e-mails all mean computers have to send login information across the network – which is a goldmine that scammers look for.

“Sitting in an airport is the ideal time to grab your laptop and send out a couple e-mails using a free WiFi hotspot,” says Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET Southern Africa. “You connect and send, and are off on your way. What you don’t know is that the free Wi-Fi may come with a price: your login credentials and network traffic being sniffed and captured before sending them along to the real WiFi hotspot, and your information stolen en route, undetected.”

Hotspots with unrecognisable names or ones that closely resembles the name of the official one should raise immediate flags of awareness. Be especially wary of “unsecured” hotspots, where you don’t need to enter a password to gain access, says Van Vlaanderen.

“he magic happens through a proxy technology, which intercepts your Wi-Fi communication, captures and stores a copy locally on the scammer’s laptop, then sending your information on to a ‘real’ WiFi hotspot. This will slow down your traffic a little, but with congested networks, it is often hard to tell if your traffic’s being snooped, or if there are just many users logging in at the same time.”

He also advises users that, whenever they shop online, log in to check a bank balance or catch up on e-mails, the computer has to send the login information across the network – which is where the danger comes in.

“If criminals get their hands on the information, they have all the time in the world to work on decrypting it, and you may notice fraudulent account activity days or even weeks later,” says Van Vlaanderen. “Use caution and pay attention to details when using public WiFi.

Mobile operators move to Wi-Fi

A survey conducted by MarketTools Zoomerang in May 2011, indicated for smartphone users in the USA that:

  • 74% would be interested in a mobile operator-provided service that uses Wi-Fi to provide lower cost calls
  • 72% are interested in an application that uses Wi-Fi to improve cellular coverage
  • 44 % would “definitely” be interested in an application that could be used to boost mobile coverage
  • 47 % would “definitely” be interested in a Wi-Fi service offering discounted calling

Operators will be able to use next generation Wi-Fi standards, combined with a Wi-Fi roaming exchange model, to offer customers a joined-up Wi-Fi experience that will enable customers easier data roaming, as well as giving operators the opportunity to offload data.

A more integrated cellular-Wi-Fi strategy could bring three benefits for operators:

  • First, there is the indirect value of being able to automatically offload traffic through free Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Secondly, there is the added customer value of enabling easier international data roaming.
  • Thirdly, there is the issue of providing better in-building coverage.

Our concerns are however with the consumer:

Mobile operator data offload to the Wi-Fi operators – this will increase traffic congestion at Wi-Fi hotspots.

Wi-Fi operators will have to invest in technology to support the next generation Wi-Fi standards – someone will have to pay for this.

International data roaming has always been possible at Wi-Fi hotspots – exactly, still no freedom to roam connected like a local.

Handset manufacturers need to release devices with support the next gen standards – when will consumers see these devices (2 years?)

Until then users will still need to log in to each and every Wi-Fi hotspot operators network – many pre-paid accounts and login credentials required.

Public Wi-Fi security remains a concern until SIM based authentication becomes possible.

This proposal requires mobile operators to sign agreements with Wi-Fi operators and agree a commercial model – the test of all this theory will come when the consumer pricing for this service is released (and when the technology is available to the consumer).