Mobile phone shock: Pay extra for roaming to use data service

Phone companies deduct heavy roaming charges for data services, even within the recently unified circles, and without any prior information or intimation, in an apparent violation of a recent DoT order

As telecom firms gear up to rollout 3G advanced services that would facilitate faster Internet browsing and premium services like video calling, it will be very interesting to see how these players price their services in a fast-growing but extremely sensitive Indian market.

For, today, the list of complaints about indirect charges being squeezed out of subscribers just gets longer. Whether it is a useless ringtone you never requested, but are being charged for, or some other similarly worthless, unwanted service. Companies seem to be constantly working out ways to generate more money.

One service that is bringing in more revenues is the Internet, and mobile phone operators are finding that Internet use is increasing. Up to now, one believed that the charges displayed for data services by the operators was what they billed customers. But last month, this writer discovered a hitherto unexplained payment being deducted on data usage for roaming while on a trip out of Mumbai. Very few operators (perhaps only the government operators) mention such roaming charges and certainly none has such charges in merged circles.

Through an order of the Department of Telecom (DoT) recently, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata circles were merged with their respective states. Mobile service providers were directed to treat the metros merged with the states as one circle of operation. So Kolkata along with West Bengal is one circle and even eastern and western Uttar Pradesh is now a unified circle.

But it appears that while service providers have implemented the order with regard to call rates (charges for incoming calls within a circle have been discontinued), they have not done so for data charges. When this writer travelled from Mumbai to another city in Maharashtra (but still in the Mumbai Circle) in the past 10 days, Idea Cellular deducted Rs75 from the prepaid account without any intimation even though the entire Maharashtra and Mumbai is now a unified circle. Unlimited GPRS data service is available in the Mumbai Circle for Rs98 only monthly.

It seems that this is not just a local issue. Last year, the European Union (EU) put a cap on roaming charges for voice calls and SMS, but did not touch data charges. However, news reports have quoted Paul Rubig, member of the European Parliament from Austria, as saying that lawmakers would consider imposing new retail price caps on data roaming charges. Austria was one of the sponsors of the regulations on roaming charges.

But again, these rules are applicable only to subscribers in EU countries. Indians visiting those countries would have to pay the rates prescribed by their service provider. That's also probably why Indians get pretty steep phone bills, and there's no one who can stand up to these companies. Here's a clue of what these charges are like. Tata DoCoMo charges Rs5.50 per 10 kilobytes (KB) for international roaming. To access yahoo.com (site load about 400KB) on your mobile, you would be charged Rs220-even if you did not actually click on the website!

According to information available, a customer of Bharti Airtel in Karnataka was asked to pay a hefty roaming charge for simply keeping the data service on while on a visit to Japan. The Bharti subscriber said in a post on clientcomplain.com, "I travelled on 19 December 2009 and reached Japan on 20 December 2009, when I received an SMS alert about an outstanding amount of Rs25,000. The next day I received another alert stating that my outstanding was Rs36,000, and I had not used the data service even for a minute!" I returned to India on 23 December 2009.

This problem is particularly severe for those working in Mumbai and residing some distance away from the city. They are billed roaming charges on data services even when they are in the same Mumbai-Maharashtra unified circle. In fact, while incoming voice calls are free in these circles, the outgoing call charges vary and are quite heavy as compared to costs on the home network. On data, some service providers charge 1 paise per 10KB on the home network, but 10 times this at 10 paise per 10KB for roaming.

Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) might be an exception. Here is what MTNL says on the matter: "Subscribers can avail same data tariff charges while roaming in BSNL Maharashtra as on the MTNL Mumbai network, for all plans, and without any extra roaming charge for data."

One hopes that the launch of mobile number portability will force phone operators to be more attentive to the issues of subscribers and get rid of such absurdities.

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