Back in March, I bought a ticket to a concert in New York on a whim. Even though I only planned the trip five days ahead, I worked hard to keep the costs down. I'd travel by bus, stay at a friend's apartment, buy loaded transit passes – and only use my smart phone through public WiFi.
Which is never as easy as it sounds. Lost in Brooklyn? Google Map it. Want tickets to a sold-out Destroyer show? Check Craigslist. Feel existentially isolated because you went to New York to see LCD Soundsystem but now they're broken up and you're wandering Manhattan alone without purpose? Whine on Facebook.
And get a $293 phone bill.
Having knowingly made phone calls to friends who live as far away as Australia, I swallowed the voice-roaming charges, as well as the text charges. After some haggling with Rogers, I managed to get the data roaming charges – the largest chunk, at $130 – cut in half.
Canada is known to have some of the world's highest roaming rates: In a May study released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada was found to have double the international average data roaming charges: $24.62 (U.S.) per MB in a single session in the least expensive destination, versus a global average of $13.52.
Consumer advocate John Lawford chalks up the high costs to the lack of competition here in Canada. Even as mobile-phone use and networks proliferated across Canada, prices have remained high.
"What you've got with roaming is carriers agreeing to pass over traffic, bill each other and keep track of usage," Mr. Lawford says. "I don't think this is beyond the capacity of a carrier – or puts them to any giant expense."
Mobile data was at first a privilege left to business executives, most of whom could write it off as an expense. But as average Joes and Janes got iPhones and BlackBerrys, roaming prices haven't dropped to any accessible level.
But this week, Rogers offered hope that Canadian carriers may change. Rogers recently announced "data passes" that lets consumers pre-purchase roaming data – in the U.S., this ranges anywhere from two to 250 megabytes per day or week, at a price range between $5 and $100. Naturally, prices are higher outside of North America, though special rates are available for "premium destinations," like Cuba and the Bahamas.
Rogers also announced, just this week, text-message notifications for users who exceed the amount of data they've purchased for roaming. . Users are sent a text-message giving them the option to buy a pre-paid data package when travelling abroad. If they take one of those packages, they'll now be notified by text once they've reached 50, 80 and 100 per cent of their purchased amount, with the option to top it up.
Raj Doshi, vice-president of mobile product management with Rogers Communications, says the company wants to "ensure [customers]be aware of the data activities they use so they can make decisions."
Roaming costs for Canadians are similar no matter which company you choose. Like Rogers, Bell and Telus offer various prepaid packages that help customers avoid unexpected overage charges. Rogers, though, claims to be the first Canadian company to use a warning system.
Bell has also begun to offer similar text-message notifications for roaming data usage, notifying users when they reach two, 10, 50 and 100 megabytes of mobile data; at each point they are given a number to call to sign up for a data-roaming plan if they have not already done so.
New mobile carriers are going well out of their way to point out that costs, often set by huge legacy carriers, don't need to be so high. The barely-year-old Mobilicity, for instance, is available in a limited number of markets, but even if you leave those markets, you pay $0.20 per minute for voice calls and $1.50 per megabyte of data usage across all of North America.
Dave Dobbin, CEO of Mobilicity, just finished a 13-day cross-country trip, dipping into the U.S., to showcase his carrier's roaming costs compared with the Big Three carriers. He claims that, after equally and excessively using a Mobilicity phone and a phone from a major Canadian carrier over the course of the trip, the Mobilicity phone bill was about $306 cheaper.
Mr. Lawford, the consumer advocate, argues that the best way to knock prices down for consumers is to regulate the system -- as he puts it, to "put the boots" to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. He calls warning messages, like those that Rogers now provide, a "baby step" that all Canadian carriers should follow.
His suggestion until the system gets better? "Turn off data roaming unless you really know what you're doing."
Next time, I guess.