Mallinson: When it comes to roaming, mobile networks now beat Wi-Fi on a number of levels

Keith Mallinson

International roaming used to be a highly-profitable cash cow for mobile operators--generated by a niche of predominantly business users who were price-insensitive. No more: European regulation and competition have already made voice and text roaming affordable and widely used. One way or another, within the next few years, mobile data roaming will also become the norm for the majority travelling to most frequently visited nations.

Easy and reliable access at a reasonable price
With well-established Wi-Fi connections at home, in one's local coffee shop and at the office or around the campus, a large proportion of smartphone, tablet, and PC data needs may be habitually satisfied without resorting to cellular networks. But matters can be rather different when on holiday.

Signing up for Wi-Fi is often a hassle and not always particularly cheap. Services often come with strings attached--particularly free offerings--potentially opening one up to future spam intrusions. Coverage can be patchy and, if so, will mostly likely not be apparent until after purchase. This is a nuisance if you would rather be on the beach, in the bar, or sight-seeing than pleading for rebates at the hotel front desk or on a customer service call.

I just bought my family a "four-pack" of Wi-Fi access to connect three smartphones and a laptop for five days at the price of €20 ($26) in a Greek resort hotel. But the Wi-Fi coverage in our rooms was poor; and nonexistent in many parts of the large campus. My laptop would not connect in my room, and our teenagers often struggled to connect smartphones in theirs' and elsewhere. They wanted to use Snapchat, Facebook and other networked messaging and information applications to keep up-to-date with the outside world including the World Cup football competition. They considered it little hardship to do without voice or SMS (used only occasionally, such as when being pursued by parents around curfew time), but widely or frequently available data connectivity was regarded as essential.

For our second week away, I let them turn on data roaming to enjoy the good coverage, including the beach and sports areas, and reasonable data speeds on 3G. My daughter told me this was faster than the Wi-Fi, but my son regarded neither much good for streaming video. I tend not to bother with video streaming abroad because services I subscribe to at home are blocked abroad due to copyright restrictions. Roaming came at a premium of £2 (€2.50) per day per subscriber with Vodafone's EuroTraveller service while using our usual UK voice, text and data plan allowances. I used this service throughout our holiday on my smartphone, including "tethering" my laptop. In addition to the simplicity of not having to ask for, pay for and enter codes, sometimes repetitively as my son found himself needing to do, or grapple with the coverage and technical problems that frequently afflict Wi-Fi services, I was comforted by the mobile security that is absent on public Wi-Fi services.

My experience with foreign city-hopping travel makes me even more inclined to stick with mobile communications if prices are not unreasonable. It is while on sight-seeing explorations that one is most likely to benefit from continuous data connectivity to access mapping and information guide applications, and local web sites. Social networks help maintain communication with fellow travellers, and friends and family at home. Frequent hotel changes and occasional visits to venues such as coffee shops and transportation centres make me particularly reluctant to deal with the bother of very temporary Wi-Fi arrangements.

Home and away
While regulators are seeking to eliminate international roaming premiums within the European Union by year-end 2015, 3 UK has already eliminated such charges in various nations with its Feel at Home offering. This is very attractive to price-sensitive consumers while abroad and the operator benefits from the revenues derived from such use, which would otherwise go to an alternative service provider, or not be generated at all with non-users.

Possibilities with Wi-Fi hotspot roaming can hold significant appeal and high-quality Wi-Fi connections, when available, may be the best or only means of accessing high-bandwidth applications such as HD video streaming. I have used my Skype credit many times at airports for a quick Internet session on my PC, but such opportunities are far from universal.

There is nothing like cellular for ubiquity, simplicity and security. As mobile broadband coverage improves and as speeds and capacity increase with LTE, the main remaining barrier is price. Cost and performance deficiencies may preclude use of mobile data for streaming video, but in many cases Wi-Fi access is also inadequate for that demanding application as noted by my son.

The major alternative to mobile data roaming is having no data at all for most of the time, with perhaps some occasional stops at free-Wi-Fi oases. Starhome Mach, a provider of cloud connectivity technologies, states that analysis of traffic from its 300 mobile operator customers' networks shows 58 per cent of European roamers switch off mobile data when travelling abroad. This percentage will surely fall dramatically over the next few years. Consumers are becoming more accustomed to, and dependent upon, ubiquitous availability of pervasive data connectivity in their homelands. Maintaining this abroad is essential because information needs or desires and usage are often even greater.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. Find WiseHarbor on Twitter @WiseHarbor.