Lower Rates Mean Cheaper Smartphone Use for Europeans Abroad

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Prices for mobile data services abroad have come down in Europe, but people still have to be very careful when using their smartphones or laptops when going on holiday, according to Swedish telecommunications regulator PTS.

The average price per megabyte excluding taxes dropped from €3.62 (US$4.42) in the first quarter of 2009 to €2.67 in the last three months of 2009, according to BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications).

The average wholesale price, which is what operators pay each other, has in the same period dropped from €1.91 to €0.55. A European Union cap, which went into effect on July 1, 2009, specified that wholesale rates for 1MB shouldn't cost more than €1.

Mobile operators are stepping up efforts to get their subscribers to use mobile networks when travelling both in and outside of Europe. This week, Deutsche Telekom and 3 UK announced new data packages.

Deutsche Telekom is now offering seven Smart Traveller packages. For example, users with smartphones can buy the Handy DayPass Europe, which costs €4.95 per day including taxes and 5MB of data. It also offers similar packages for subscribers travelling to the U.S. and Asia, but the cost per day increases to €9.95 and €14.95, respectively. There is also a Handy 4-WeekPass Europe, which costs €14.95 total and includes 10MB of data.

Mobile operator 3 UK has lowered the cost of data roaming, for smartphones and dongle-equipped laptops, for football fans travelling to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and will charge £1.25 ($1.84) per megabyte including taxes in June and July.

However, even though prices have come down and operators are offering various packages, accessing mobile data services can become expensive, especially outside of Europe, according to PTS.

PTS advises Swedes to check with their operators what mobile services cost before travelling abroad, and users should also turn off any applications that may connect to the Internet automatically. One way to get around high fees is to get a local SIM card, but before doing that users should make sure their modem or phone isn't locked to one operator, according to PTS.

Users can surf using Wi-Fi, which most smartphones and laptops come equipped with, as well.

Knowing what you can do with a few megabytes can be tricky. For instance, a 20 kilometer trip with A-GPS (Assisted-GPS) and traffic updates uses 200KB with Nokia's Ovi Maps, the Finnish phone manufacturer said via e-mail.

To prevent expensive surprises, the E.U. has put in place a €50, before taxes, warning mechanism. Today, users have to activate it themselves, but from July 1 operators have to turn it on by default, according to the European Commission.

How the E.U. tackles data roaming going forward remains to be seen. When asked about that during a recent press conference, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for the digital agenda, said she is keeping a close eye on how that market is evolving and that mobile operators should be aware that the cost of data roaming is still a major concern. The Commission will be back soon with more on this subject, according to Kroes.

Data roaming is still too expensive in Europe, and that users are being unnecessarily penalized when they use their smartphones or laptops abroad, said a 3 UK spokesman. If wholesale prices came down even further, the lower cost could be passed on to end users and usage would go up, he said.

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