The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is introducing new rules to make it less likely Australian travellers will suffer a horrendous case of bill shock when they return from an overseas holiday and discover a massive global roaming bill. Here's how the new system will work (and why anyone using a carrier other than the big three won't notice changes for a long time).
Holiday picture from Shutterstock
The new rules represent an extension to the existing Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code, designed to make the pricing of phone and data services more apparent. Like that code, implementation is going to take a while; the won't kick in until 27 September 2013, and not all the changes will happen immediately.
There are four main elements to the scheme:
You must be sent an SMS warning you of high roaming charges when you land in a foreign country. Many telcos send an SMS saying 'Welcome to country X' and highlighting basic call charges, but data cost warnings are less common. These warnings must appear within 10 minutes of you switching on a phone in a foreign country. (Note this won't happen if roaming isn't enabled at all, since there's no risk of you spending excess money in that case.)
Details of prices that apply in that country. SMS messages should also be sent indicating the cost of calls and other services in the relevant destination. (One intractable problem: you'll presumably pay to receive those messages at the relevant rates.)
You must be able to disable roaming easily, even when overseas. Switching off roaming often requires making a call -- an expensive task from overseas, and one which can be even harder if the number provided to do so doesn't work outside Australia. The ideal approach would be a simple online change from an account management portal or the ability to send a simple text message to disable and enable the service. The rules cover most of that; if you need to make a phone call to disable the service, the maximum you can be charged is $1.00, and if you need to access a site, you can't be charged for that.
Better spend management tools. A popular way to deal with roaming charges is to purchase an add-on roaming bundle. The new code requires that regular usage warnings be provided to consumers, including every time they consume $100 worth of roaming data. (That can happen very quickly; on Telstra's roaming rates, that amounts to around 7MB of data.) The scheme also requires warning when 50, 85 and 100 per cent of plan value has been used, a requirement which also applies to domestic services from 1 September this year.
As with the main TCP code, what's annoying about this is how long it will take. The first three requirements have to be introduced from 27 September this year for Telstra, Optus and Vodafone; smaller providers have until 23 May 2016 to do so. While many smaller MVNOs actively discourage use overseas and we appreciate that their ability to provide these details depends on gaining access to appropriate data from their providers, waiting two-and-a-half years seems excessive.
The usage warnings are going to be tricky too; even in a domestic context, these can be up to 48 hours old. Roaming spending can ramp up enormously in a 48-hour period. Carriers have to warn customers about the potential delay, but aren't obliged to provide real-time information. The standard bleat from providers is that this information isn't available in real time, an argument I've never found convincing since prepaid seems to manage this very easily.
At any rate, while those changes are welcome, they still won't stop you running up a bill. Check out our top 10 ways to avoid global roaming rorts for more advice.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman lives for free Wi-Fi overseas. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.