Ask some corporate globetrotters what they think about mobile-phone roaming and they'll most likely say they love the service, but hate the pricing and miss some comfort functions. Then ask teenagers using prepaid mobile-phone calling cards and don't be surprised to hear that many of them have never heard of it.
All of this could change soon thanks to some new technology and growing competition among operators.
"Roaming is going to become simpler and cheaper," said Mohan Gyani, chief executive officer (CEO) of Roamware Inc., in San Jose, California. "Market forces are driving this."
Today, only about 15 percent of the millions of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone customers in the world use roaming, largely because of high prices with little transparency and the fact that the service isn't available to many prepaid customers, who represent 75 percent of all GSM mobile-phone users, according to Gyani.
Now many mobile-phone companies, especially those operating in saturated markets, hope to generate additional revenue from roaming by offering lower prices and new services and by targeting prepaid users, Gyani said. He pointed to Vodafone Group PLC as one of several big operators now pushing roaming service.
Roamware has developed a few new services to help operators spur greater user interest in roaming over and above offering them cheaper fees. One of them is what Gyani called the virtual home-environment service, which allows customers traveling outside their home networks to continue using many familiar functions, such as pressing and holding a key to retrieve voice mail.
Another is traffic redirection. This service allows operators to direct roaming customers to preferred partner networks abroad, for pricing or quality of service reasons, according to Gyani. "Take customers who want not only voice roaming but also data roaming," he said. "With this service, operators can put them on the network that offers both."
Today, about 30 percent of the existing global roaming customer base is prepaid. There are some technology reasons for this low level of usage, including limited operator compliance with the CAMEL (Customized Application for Mobile network Enhanced Logic) standard required to provide intelligent roaming services and real-time billing.
Roamware has developed a service that overcomes many of these technological challenges. Prepaid customers using the service receive a text message via SMS (short message service) when they cross the border asking if they want a local number. If they say yes, their prepaid minutes are transferred to that number. The service also allows calls made to customers' home numbers to follow them outside the country.
Roamware is currently working on several new services, including one that will allow roaming customers to avoid paying an international fee for retrieving voice mail messages stored on the server in their home network, according to Gyani.
Another service under development is what the CEO calls the "voice SMS." Customers receive a text message when someone has left a message. They can press a button to be connected directly to that message instead of having to call up their voice-mail box and listen to all the options and other recorded messages.
But perhaps one of the biggest areas of growth for roaming services is not voice but data, according to Gyani. "Moving forward, we will need to deal with issues of how data services, whether mobile or wireless, follow roaming customers," he said. "There is huge potential in data-roaming services."
Some people will increasingly make VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls over Wi-Fi and WiMax networks or use devices supporting multiple technologies, such as dual-mode phones, which offer access to mobile and Wi-Fi networks, according to Gyani.
"Some people have been projecting an end to roaming," Gyani said. "They couldn't be more wrong. We're going to see huge demand for roaming services as prices fall and technologies converge."