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Clive Andrews

The mobile internet: Not so mobile when we need it most

A few weeks ago I spent a while in British Columbia, Canada. It was great. Lots of travelling around, meeting people, catching ferries and taking buses to beautiful places. Tremendous, but hectic. I spent much of my time juggling ferry timetables, bus schedules, folded city maps and a bunch of phone numbers I had scribbled in a notebook.

Maps? Scribbling in a notebook? In this day and age? I know what you’re thinking: “There’s an app for that“, right? Of course. The mobile web is full of all kinds of applications and social tools to handle travel planning, on-the-fly-research and communication. But my smartphone – the tool needed to access all this goodness – remained switched off in the bottom of my rucksack for whole three weeks I was in Canada. Why? What a waste! Why, at the time when I’m away having adventures in unusual places, should I be less likely to make use of the online tools that have been designed to help me?

Quite simply, I was wary of the cost of going online while away. And I’m not alone. Several friends have previously shared news of surprise post-holiday data bills. The media carry warnings of the expense of overseas web browsing.

The not-so-mobile web

Now, more than ever before, smartphones and other devices are allowing us remain online when we’re on the move, particularly through the ever-growing slew of mobile apps. So isn’t it crazy that when we’re exploring new places, fear of unexpected phone bills makes us remove ourselves from the internet we’ve become so accustomed to at home?

The time when we most stand to benefit from the full amazingness of the web is the one time we’re most likely to have our phones switched off.

And it’s not just consumption of information we’re missing out on. When the web works at its best, it’s about contributing as much as it’s about consuming. The times we travel are the times when we are most interesting, when we have most to express. Think of all those photos, ideas, feelings and restaurant recommendations that we avoid sharing because we’re wary of the cost of doing so.

This is a widespread problem. A quick glance at Twitter suggests that virtually everyone paying their own phone bill struggles to find an easy, affordable way to access data through their smartphones when overseas. We’re all frustrated.

Bundle, bundle, bundle

Of course, the mobile providers have ‘bundles’ of data we can buy before we travel. All the networks provide various offers, packages, tariffs and deals for international use. I’m an Orange subscriber. Before I left the UK, I used Twitter to ask the eager-to-please @OrangeHelpers for advice. The response was quick and helpful, but contained links to several pages of data bundles, price tables, country dropdowns – all fairly off-putting and in no way encouraging me to use my phone while away.

In Canada, Orange’s standard price for 1MB of data is £8, or I could buy a bundle of 50Mb for £40 – much cheaper, but still denying me the confidence to casually browse Vancouver restaurant reviews, search online for kayak rental or post pictures of biking trails.

In fact, the advice from Orange’s own staff was that I should switch off mobile data and hope for public wifi rather than get my fingers burned with roaming data charges. Though a useful idea, this still falls short of the ideal of being able, in an unfamiliar city, to simply pull your phone from your pocket and instantly translate a sign, find a hotel, share a photo or locate the nearest 24 hour Vietnamese-Mexican fusion vegan restaurant – all the stuff the new wave of apps have been designed to help us do. When even the networks themselves warn us to steer clear of fully mobile web access, something must be wrong.

Other cunning plans

There are various services that will supply travellers with an alternative SIM (and phone number), bringing cheaper data access to many, but not all, foreign networks. Another often-recommended tactic is to buy a pay-as-you-go phone in your destination country. That solves the problem of pricey roaming charges, but involves a new phone number and, unless prepared to spend a decent sum, means settling for a basic model of phone – perhaps one that will be much less suited to mobile web use than your usual iPhone or Android smartphone – the phones for which most of today’s useful apps are designed.

Both these ideas miss my point: This needs to be as easy as possible.

Normal, not just possible

So what’s the solution? Not easy, I know. The challenge is to turn overseas web access from something that’s possible into something that’s normal. Something that’s accessible to everyone – not just businesspeople whose companies pick up their phone bills. Something that’s encouraged. Yes, I know there are costs involved in using foreign networks, and I know these costs must inevitably be passed on to the consumer. But if any of the networks negotiate a better way of doing this, they could really change things.

I don’t feel the answer lies in obscure pre-booked bundles or fiddly foreign SIMs – the goal must be to help us use our phones, and particularly our data, with minimal hassle, minimal uncertainty and at a price similar to our arrangement when at home. Today’s range of apps, gizmos and social networks ceases to be of any use if we’re too scared to switch on our phones and use them.

Maybe the mobile networks can get clever? What if they team up with the airlines, the travel companies, the hotel chains – the brands we’ll be talking about online while we’re away – to help us to stay connected?

If the mobile networks can change the way this part of their business works, they’ll achieve something important. They’ll persuade more of us to leave our phones switched on when we venture to far-off lands. We’ll remain part of the web at the time when we need it – and it needs us – the most.

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2 Comments

  1. Edward

    Please tell me what the costs involved are! I’d love to know why it is soooo expensive to use your phone abroad, to make calls or use data.
    There is no way that the administration costs of transferring the charges from a foreign network to your provider at home are that much.
    I think the answer to all this is that the telco’s are a bunch of ****s and are ripping us off as much as they can.

    Posted 1st July 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. Ross
    Posted 5th July 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink