Roaming takes its toll

 Roaming? No matter what you do, connect to a wireless network whenever you can — at airports, hotels, cafes — so that you do not incur network data and roaming charges.. Photo/FILE
Roaming? No matter what you do, connect to a wireless network whenever you can — at airports, hotels, cafes — so that you do not incur network data and roaming charges.. Photo/FILE 

I recently travelled to Germany for a short course  and was excited that my Safaricom line was still active on my arrival there. 

This was a relief since I could keep in touch with family and colleagues back home via the local Vodafone network. What I did not know was that the roaming rates were extremely high compared to my home network charges. I also did not know that I would be charged for calls I received.

For starters, roaming enables mobile phone subscribers to access the portfolio of services they subscribe to at home while outside the geographical coverage area of their home network. This includes voice, SMS and Data services.

Back to my story.

I had over Sh3,000 credit on my pre-paid line and thought the amount would suffice for the few days I planned to spend in Germany. I received three text messages,  two calls that lasted  less than a minute each and I logged on to Twitter  only to be informed that I had insufficient funds. My Sh3,000 of credit had apparently been swallowed up. To my utter shock, I  suddenly could not even receive  nor  send an SMS.

I felt cheated. But the truth was that, like many  international travellers, I was ignorant  about what the roaming service is all about.

I simply believed it was a service that would cost me slightly more to keep in touch with friends and family while out of the country  without having to buy a new line in the country I was visiting. How wrong I was!  Many first time travellers find themselves in the exact predicament I was in.

My colleague Ochieng Rapuro visited the US  a few month ago. He could not believe how much he was charged for simply talking to his wife back home to let her know he had arrived safely.

“I was in the US in April, my wife called and we talked for exactly seven minutes and for this, the entire Sh7,300 on my phone was gone. I have never understood at what rate I was charged,” says Rapuro.

Another colleague, Basillioh Mutahi landed in Amsterdam enroute to Germany.  Since he had an hour to kill  at the airport in Amsterdam before boarding the flight to Germany,  he decided to while away the time by keeping in touch with his friends on  Facebook. 

The Sh1,000 airtime on his phone was  simply swallowed up even before the Facebook home page could fully launch.
This is the kind of frustration that many travellers and subscribers  go through.

And this does not only happen to first time travellers.   All it takes is forgetting to change the settings on your phone immediately you land in a foreign country. Browsing on your phone while abroad can be 200 times more expensive than when browsing in Kenya.

And you  must be extra careful when selecting a roaming network while travelling.

Wrong network

For Safaricom subscribers,  for instance, there are preferential and non-preferential networks especially in East Africa which charge different rates.  If you hook up to a wrong network,  you may end up paying through your nose.

“To enhance the free-roaming zone’s seamless connectivity anywhere within East Africa, Safaricom has partnered with MTN Uganda, Uganda Telkom (UTL), Vodacom Tanzania and MTN Rwanda to offer their subscribers an affordable, convenient and reliable way to communicate.

According Safaricom, the Kama Kawaida service differs  from the International Roaming service  because subscribers receive incoming calls for free, there is no need for prior roaming access, no roaming deposit is required for postpay subscribers and PrePay subscribers can top-up their phones using both Safaricom and the partner networks’ recharge vouchers.

“When travelling in East Africa, whether for business or pleasure, your phone will automatically pick up these other  networks  in the visited country. Should another network be selected, you’ll need to manually select any of the preferred networks to enjoy the special roaming tariffs,” Safaricom warns.

Roaming charges

For most international roaming charges, billing is per minute but sometimes the billing is per second if you use a preferential network so always make sure you know how you are being charged.

For data, using a preferential network like Vodacom Tanzania you pay Sh14 per mb but if you are on non-preferential network, you pay a whopping Sh420 per mb. The high cost often comes because Safaricom has to pay the host network for the interconnection.

“When on preferential roaming, you do not need to change tariff but you need to lock it up to a specific network.

This you can achieve by altering your phone network settings,” says Nzioka Waita, Safaricom’s Corporate Affairs Director.

“We help you keep in touch with your business partners, friends and loved ones through our extensive coverage of more than 400 roaming partners in over 200 destinations worldwide,”  reads a notice on Airtel’s  international website.

According to the site, Airtel’s roaming service costs subscribers in India a monthly rental of 99 rupees  for International Roaming in addition to the international roaming rates.

Turn off data

The bottom line here is that you  need to be smart when it comes to calling or receiving calls from home whenever abroad.

So next time before you travel abroad be sure to make prior arrangements with your mobile phone operator on data and calling charges to avoid any shocks when you are billed.

For pre-paid subscribers, unless you manually change your network settings and lock it to a preferential network, you handset automatically switches to any available network once you leave your home network territory.

Frequent travellers advice that the best  thing you can do is turn off data roaming and cellular data before you board a plane for  a trip abroad.

That’s because once you turn on your phone abroad and it registers with the local phone company, you are automatically charged for calls including the phone calls you may not even answer and the voice messages you may retrieve.

In Germany and other European countries, for instance,  roaming data rates range from Sh1,270 per mb to Sh1800 per mb or even more depending on the network operator and the agreement between the chosen operator and your home network operator. This means that with Sh1,000 credit on your phone or modem, you may not be able to send one tweet.

However ,  if you acquired local European line to surf the Internet, you would be spending  Sh500  per mb which is,  of course,  higher than Kenyan rates but better than international  roaming rates.