Right to roam

Roaming is a complex aspect of telecoms, but the GCC appears to be moving in the right regulatory direction.

Tags: Pinsent MasonsRoamingSAMENA Telecommunications CouncilTelecommunications Regulatory Authority - Bahrain (http://www.tra.org.bh/)
  • E-Mail
Right to roam Adel Darwish, TRA Bahrain.
By  Roger Field Published  February 7, 2011

He also thinks the regulation should have been better enforced, explaining that “very few” of the GCC’s operators – possibly less than 50% - had implemented the first phase of the regulation, a situation that could be compounded with the second phase of the regulation due in just a few months.

He says that he is also skeptical about the benefits the regulation will bring, and questions the impact of similar regulations that were passed in Europe in 2008.
“This is actually showing in Europe where regulation was introduced in 2008 but so far it doesn’t look like the customers have dramatically increased their usage,” he says.

“Regulation is not always something that the operators see positively, because there is a very important school of thought that says a free market delivers better for customers and not a regulated market,” he adds.

“Usually, operators are discussing more on a one-to-one basis, commercial agreements that unlock opportunities to encourage usage.” The spokesman points to some positive developments in roaming from some of the region’s operators as evidence that self regulation could offer an alternative to external regulation.

“Two or three years ago there was a very complicated standard of pricing applicable everywhere. “Now most of the operators have moved away from that approach to introduce standard pricing, promotions, and initiatives,” he says.

Samena Council’s Beylouni adds that while self regulation might have failed in Europe, there are signs that some operators in the MENA region are forging competitive bilateral agreements, with significant cost savings being passed on to end-users. Indeed, in the past few years, operators including Zain, Etisalat and Du have launched attractive roaming initiatives that simplify charging – and offer lower rates for many calls – while roaming.

Data roaming

While the situation for roaming voice services appears to be improving, mobile data users are still likely to find some nasty surprises on their bills when they return from a holiday or business trip.

The Gulf-based telecom professional who preferred not to be named, says: “When it comes to roaming in the GCC was definitely the year of data. This was something which had been experienced earlier by operators from different regions such as Far East Asia and the West but had not reached these countries yet.”

But with Apple’s iPhone growing in popularity in the region from 2009, and with many operators investing heavily in 3G and HSPA+, operators in the Gulf have experienced a surge in data use.

“Moving forward, there will be more challenges in terms of these bill-shocks and unless operators can find some counter measures it could become a bigger problem,” he adds.
Lenka Glynn, of Pinsent Masons, points out that overpriced roaming charges are not just limited to the Middle East, but are a worldwide problem.

“Very often the margins charged by the operators are not always reasonable and this is happening even in the markets where mobile competition is established,” she says.

For Glynn, part of the problem is not just high wholesale prices, but also a lack of transparency about the prices passed on to the end-user. The fact that most people fail to take roaming costs into consideration when they choose a mobile package also gives operators a freer hand to charge higher fees.

“Many customers don’t seem to take into account roaming charges when they are choosing a bundled mobile offer. We look at the price of domestic and international calls and SMS,” Glynn says.

“There is a lack of transparency in international roaming charges, hardly anyone understands how it works, or the difference between roaming and a regular connection. There is also a very low awareness of alternative solutions such as buying an alternative sim card or calling card, or VOIP,” she adds.

“All these reasons combined mean there is a lack of market pressure on the operators to actually lower the retail rates.” Despite this, Glynn and Tymburski believe that there has been some significant progress in the Middle East.

“We have definitely seen some tangible steps being taken in the region, in particular with respect to transparency,” Tymburski says. She points to SMS notifications sent to users when they enter a roaming zone, and regulators’ adoption of more comprehensive roaming regulations, as particularly encouraging signs.

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code