Global Roaming 'Bill Shock' Can Strike Anywhere: Even Australia

We all know that mobile data usage can lead to eye-watering bills while travelling overseas -- but what about when you haven't set foot outside Australia? An Optus customer was recently slugged with $360 in roaming data charges after briefly stepping onto a docked cruise ship. No really.

Global roaming charges often come as a nasty surprise -- it's why they call them "bill shock". But we doubt many customers have been as blindsided as Phil and Karen Edmiston, who received a hefty global roaming fee during a billing cycle spent entirely within Australia. The culprit was a satellite base station on a docked cruise ship which the captain had forgot to switch off.

"My wife's mother is 87, so we helped her onboard her cruise and my wife decided to stick around to say goodbye," Phil explained to Lifehacker. "While the ship was sitting in Fremantle Harbour, [my wife] Karen rang up to give me a tour of the ship using FaceTime, which probably took around five or ten minutes. Not long afterwards, she got an alert on her phone telling her she'd exceeded a spend of $300.

"I immediately jumped onto the Optus website to check our usage and at the bottom of the report there was a charge for "data use not included in your plan." I drilled into this and it was for something called Maritime MCP."

In other words, the ship effectively took over Karen's phone's signal with its own satellite roaming service due to it being the strongest one available. (Ships are supposed to turn off their base station when they enter territorial waters, but apparently they don't always remember.) Unfortunately, this meant the phone was being charged global data roaming rates at $20+ per megabyte.

"We basically got charged over $350 for a couple of trivial calls which is completely bizarre and unreasonable," Phil said. "The whole thing smacks of rorting and ripping off."

According to Phil, his wife did not choose to connect to the ship's WiFi at any point and assumed she was still on the Optus network. On the plus side, Optus was quick to refund the charges after receiving a complaint from the Edmistons. However, as Phil notes, there may be other consumers in similar situations who never contest the bill.

"The funny thing was that [Optus] seemed to know straight away what had caused the issue and were happy to credit the bill. It gave me the impression that they know about this problem and get it regularly. You have to wonder how many people don't question or ask about it and still get hit with the bill."

ACCAN Weighs In

Phil decided to contact the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) about the situation after seeing the organisation's recent campaign against exorbitant global roaming fees. Optus, in turn, provided the following statement:

I can confirm that mobile services on cruise ships are typically charged at international rates, even if the ship is in Australian waters. This is because the customer is using the ship’s own mobile service rather than the Optus network. Optus recognises that Karen was unaware of the different rate charges and we are working with her directly to resolve the issue. We understand that some customers are not aware that they will be charged at international roaming rates while travelling. This is an issue and we’re taking steps to rectify it.

"This highlights the absurdity of global roaming charges and why more transparency for consumers is desperately required," an ACCAN representative said.

If there's a moral to the story, it's that you should always be on high-alert when it comes to mobile data usage. According to ACCAN, mobile complaints to the TIO about disputed roaming charges increased by almost 70 percent in in 2011-12 compared to the previous year. Despite the introduction of a new international roaming standard by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, it seems that people are still being slugged in the unlikeliest of ways.

UPDATE: Optus has since contacted us to announce that from the end of July, all customers will receive an SMS alert whenever they connect to roaming services, including roaming voice calls.

"This will hopefully help customers like Karen so she doesn’t have the same issue again," an Optus spokesperson said.

See also: ACCAN's 'Phone Rights' App Lets You Fight Shoddy Telcos Head-On | How To Stretch A Meagre Mobile Data Allowance | Optus Quietly Puts Caps On Bill Shock | Nearly 50% Of Surveyed Australians Have Never Heard Of The TIO | Expert Tips To Make Your Cruising Holiday More Appealing And Affordable


    That's pretty crazy.. Glad to see you weren't blaming them for this though, I cannot imagine how they would handle such a situation any better heh.

    Good to see Optus coming to the party on this one.

    Maybe they should make your text or screen red when you are roaming so people know something is up right away..

    So, in theory, you could be standing on the dock waving goodbye, filming your loved ones as they depart - and get hit with global roaming fee?
    Because the ship is closer than the nearest mobile phone repeating tower?

    Last edited 08/07/13 5:08 pm

      The ship is supposed to have their tower switched off in this case. They should only switch it on when they leave the range of the towers on land.

    Might be a good idea to turn global roaming off except when on hols...just in case.

    That a good reason to reason have your phones roaming turned off permanently until you really need to use it, the iPhone really should be smarter about roaming than it is as well.

    Even so, the cruise company should have been liable, good on Optus for quickly refunding with no fuss though.

    Here's what I wonder...what if I am down at Circular Quay, standing right next to a docked cruise ship, and decide I just can't wait to get home to download "Mars Attacks 'Dat Ass Vol. 27"?

    Will I get hit with an international bill too?

      The article says the ship is suppose to have it turned off, but if the ship has left it turned on then yes you could be slugged. The good news is that it is illegal for the ship to be transmitting inside Australian territory without a license. (Transmitting on a frequency in an area that they do not hold a license for). The license holder (Optus) or the ACMA could in theory prosecute what is essentially the same as a pirate radio station. Micro/pico/femto cells are supposed to use GPS positioning to prevent use in an unlicensed area. This is likely why Optus was willing to refund so readily, they could prosecute, and won't pay the roaming bill anyway.

        Vodafone has R next to the signal when in roaming. But with iphones u should have roaming data turned off. Why pay crap loads where nearly every other country except here has free wifi everywhere.

    I have worked on cruise ships and had a bit to do with satelite communications. The ships phone system is supposed to be set so that it only works when the ship is at sea, so as to avoid this kind of thing happening (this is 5 year old information though) .

    Cruise ships have to turn off their GSM or WCDMA signal well before they reach Australian ports. It is very much a licensing issue - within Australia, the use of the relevant GSM and WCDMA spectrum is licensed to Australian carriers. Optus did the right thing by quickly refunding the charges.

    In any case, it is advisable to turn global roaming off even when within Australia. Although we are relatively safe from roaming bill shock within our country compared to Europeans (just think of the Luxembourgers!), even some airlines have recently introduced costly roaming facilities on their aircraft. While its very unlikely that someone picks up a signal from an overflying aircraft, it is still a remote possibility.

    I have written a e-book titled 'An Insider's Guide to Low Cost International Roaming', which also covers roaming on cruise ships. You may check it out on Amazon or Kobo.

    Again with the telco bashing eh: "The whole thing smacks of rorting and ripping off."

    Why publish such an inflammatory and libelous statement? You prove in your article the entire fault was caused by a freak accident, and yet you publish a statement that has no standing seeing the Service Provider credited the charges.

    Knowing how many Allure employees (current and former, and who know many still in the industry) who worked Telco I find it even more worrisome that you didn't even bother speaking to those in the know. For example I've done tens of thousands of disputes. I've never heard of anything like this occurring. Doing some background research, you know journalism 101 stuff, could have easily clarified and changed the entire context and direction of this story.

    Worse is the attempt to tenuously link this matter to the very complex, contractually and technically nuanced issue of excess usage and Global Roaming pricing.

    There are so many apps and systems available to manage usage I could understand in the years prior customers who had no opportunity to manage their usage. But these days, with the dozens of stories published by the media, by LifeHacker no less, about how to manage your usage I simply think beyond these one in a million freak accidents that people who can't manage their internet and roaming usage should be more mindful and responsible of their own actions. For Lifehacker to inflame the public with these sorts of stories simply does not help the situation.

    I don't dispute that there we need a debate on global roaming but for Allure to do so with glib statements and myopic and out of context statements really doesn't improve the quality of the debate.

    Just got my Three bill incorporating almost a month in the UK and Ireland. The "Three Like Home" feature means no bill shock. The cost of calls made and text messages sent in the UK and Ireland were actually less than those made in Australia (texts might have been a little more)!

    The roaming calls and text messages aren't included in the cap, but you can't have everything. Incoming calls were free (so don't feature on the bill). And something I hadn't noticed before, no GST payable on the roaming charges!

    Of course Three closes at the end of August, and Vodafone don't offer a similar feature to Three Like Home. Dammit.


    They need something like the European warnings, when traveling from France into Switzerland recently both our mobiles (one was Orange, one was Free) soon received multiple SMS's from both providers telling us we had roamed and advising us of data and call costs in Switzerland. My HTC ChaCha also showed R when roaming, not sure about my partners Nokia, I didn't think to look. I also noticed yesterday when sitting on the French side of the border near Switzerland it never roamed not even when I later walked across the Doub river pedestrian bridge into Switzerland. I also noticed they warn you the first time but don't seem to on subsequent re-crossings.

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