The recent furore over the $14K phone bill of a SingTel subscriber shows how much our phone usage patterns have changed in the last decade. Originally used for making voice calls, then moving on to SMS text messages, many of us are nowadays predominantly using our phones for mobile data communications. More specifically, we’re using our phones for mobile access to the Internet. It’s the communication tools and services that’s on the Internet that we care about, not so much the voice or text services from the mobile phone operator.
During my recent holiday trip to Hong Kong, I chose a prepaid roaming card on the basis of its cheap data services. I reckoned that I wouldn’t be making much phone calls or text messaging. It’s data that I’ll be consuming. Voice calls wasn’t important. And text messages, well, I wasn’t expecting to text much either. Furthermore, I wouldn’t even be telling anyone back home about my prepaid telephone number, so actually no one could call me or text me anyway.
This is basically what Google wants. Google’s focus on developing the Android platform will enable it to push its services. In the U.S., there is Google Voice. Although we don’t have Google Voice (yet) in Singapore, there is still Google Talk, and a bunch of other Google services. With Skype, we still get to make free IP-to-IP voice calls. WhatsApp, which is free on Android, lets us send IP-to-IP text messages, bypassing telco-based SMS charges.
Where this is going to is that the traditional mobile network operator is reduced to a basic broadband carrier service. Not very different from the home broadband network that just about anyone subscribes to at home. Pretty much every mobile network operator doesn’t like this, and they don’t want to let this happen, but I think it’s pretty inevitable where we’re all headed towards.
We already have pretty reasonably priced flat-rate unlimited (or as good as unlimited) local mobile data in Singapore. It’s pretty much the case with mobile network operators in many other developed countries. The only trouble is when you roam to a foreign network. It’s still not all that cheap even with various data roaming alliances. For example, with SingTel’s Bridge DataRoam, I would have to pay S$15 a day, or about S$105 for 7 days for the length of my last trip to Hong Kong. Using a prepaid card in Hong Kong, 7 days of unlimited data cost me only S$26.
But having to change SIM cards when you travel is inconvenient. This is particularly when you want to continue to be reachable by voice or text at your original number. Sure, you can forward your voice calls, but you can’t do the same with SMS messages.
Eventually, mobile network operators will have to accept that they have been reduced to basic data carrier service providers, and focus to deliver value in some other ways.
Meanwhile, if you want to continue having data access for your smartphone when you travel, the safest solution is to get a prepaid SIM card. No way you can end up with any accidental or unexpected charges. If you absolutely have to use your local SIM card and want to use a partner roaming data plan with it, make sure your phone is locked to the correct network, and better check regularly that it really works!