BBC News

Business travel: Keeping mobile roaming headaches at bay

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

image captionWish you were here: Business travel might seem glamorous, but connectivity problems can cause some very un-glamorous headaches

It's late at night, you're far from home, it's hot and steamy. You need to send an urgent e-mail to the office - but there's no wifi available and you can't find a 3G signal.

Even if you could, as a lean mean startup you're worried you might need to sell the office furniture to pay the bill.

This is a situation familiar to anyone who travels - whether on business or simply on holiday.

The rise of the smartphone and our increasing reliance on laptops and tablets, not to mention cloud-based software applications that need an internet connection to work, means many of us find ourselves hostages to high wifi and roaming charges.

In the EU, the European Commission has announced plans to extend the price cap on roaming costs to include data for the first time, with a lower cap on calls received and texts. Despite this charges are likely to remain high.

So what can you do to keep yourself connected - while keeping costs down?

Connected sales

Geneva-based Carole Vivien has worked in IT sales for around 15 years, for some of the biggest companies in the telecoms sector, including BT and AT&T. She now works for US firm Hunt Big Sales, and travels regularly around the world on business.

"I would say that my bill is 95% roaming. Always. Even when I was working for AT&T or whoever," she says.

image captionExperts warn that unlocked wifi hotspots at airports may be used by criminals to access your data

"They give you a limit. Let's say they let you spend £500 to £700 a month for your mobile, but because you're roaming all the time you're more likely to spend £2,000 on voice and data."

About six months ago she ended up stranded at London's Heathrow Airport after a mix-up with her flights.

While sorting out a hotel room for the night she saw an advert for a new device that provided a pocket wifi hotspot for a flat rate of £4.95 a day by a company called Tep Wireless.

"For me after being in telecoms for 15 years, when I saw this sign advertising it I said, 'Ah finally, someone's doing that'," she says.

Local hotspot

Personal wifi devices are not new - various network operators offer them for domestic use - but this is aimed at those travelling overseas, allowing you to connect up to five devices in any of the countries supported by the company for the same flat rate. They also provide prepaid smartphones.

Tomas Mendoza is the founder of Tep Wireless. He says he got the idea while travelling around south east Asia with his girlfriend, after leaving the hedge fund industry.

"Throughout the trip we realised how difficult it was to remain connected, and how being connected was very, very valuable.

image captionTep Wireless founder Tomas Mendoza says they are now working on a corporate membership plan

"My mother, she's 50, she doesn't know where the sim card is in the phone. Going to another country, finding a sim card, unlocking the phone, it's something she'll never do."

According to research commissioned by the company, the average smartphone data consumption is 10MB a day. Over the course of a 10-day business trip in Europe this could cost around £210 ($338; 240 euros).

When business travellers work on the internet from their phones, that can go up to as much as 40 to 60MB a day, costing between £80 and £120 a day, or between £800 and £1,200 for a 10-day trip.

This is unlikely to change in the near future, according to Juniper Research's Nitin Bhas.

"Roaming has traditionally provided network operators with an opportunity to gain additional revenues above and beyond regular access fees.

"The ability to stay connected even while roaming across international networks is a key requirement, particularly within the enterprise sector, and operators have traditionally levied a significant surcharge for this privilege, particularly in the case of data services."

Shopping around

This isn't the only technology out there that could help you cut your costs. offer 3G access for 59 cents (84 US cents; 52p) per megabyte in over 50 countries - although you have to factor in the additional cost of buying either a dongle or a sim card.

image captionOnevoice Anywhere is BT's voip service aimed at business travellers

And some of the big operators are also trying to find solutions for their business customers. BT is due to launch Onevoice Anywhere - a voip (voice over internet protocol) phone service that lets business customers make calls over wifi connected devices.

Steve Masters, BT's global head of unified communications, says testing has gone very well.

"It provides flexibility and functionality for global travellers and will help to significantly reduce global roaming charges," he says.

There are also apps that claim to help you save money. Onavo is available for iPhone, and will compress the data being received by your phone. Less data means smaller charges - but your data will have to travel through their servers.

Do it yourself

Taking an old handset, or dongle or even Mifi (personal wifi device) and buying a local sim is a possibility - but may only be practicable for longer trips, says Tom Otley of Business Traveller magazine.

Customers may object to calling you on a different, overseas number, and the handset must be unlocked.

Many people rely on the fact that that their hotel will have wifi. Mr Otley says despite the expectations of some travellers, they will often have to pay for it.

"There are certain chains that do offer wifi access for free but they're definitely in the minority. The majority of hotels still charge for access.

"Wifi seems like an affordable solution, but if you're on a four or five-day trip, and you're paying $25 for access in the hotel that can quickly add up."

Mr Otley says roaming charges are coming down - but are likely to remain expensive, and advises taking advantage of wifi when you have it, and making the most of free internet phone services like Skype.

"They're coming from an unbelievable high - if you've ever used your data phone abroad you'll know it's breathtaking the cost of the data.

"As far as wifi goes my own personal opinion is that most hotels will go to a two-tier system, with one level for browsing, but if you want a decent amount of bandwidth then you pay for it, and that seems to be sensible.

"Just like anything that is free people will use it to the ends of the earth."