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