Roaming revenues have been a grey area for operators worldwide. Will GCC's latest roaming regulations herald an increase in the number of active roamers?
The experts :
Fahad Al Hassawi, chief commercial officer, du
Adel Darwish, head of international relations, TRA Bahrain
Saad Odeh, chief wholesale and enterprise officer, Viva Bahrain
Edwin Haver, head of mobile solutions, Workz group
Mohamed Al Sadah, COO, Vodafone Qatar
CommsMEA: What do the latest regulations mean in terms of roaming prices?
Darwish: According to latest regulation approved by the Ministry of Communications and Post in the GCC in June 2015 for the GCC operators, the gradual price reduction has begun from 1st April 2016, for a period of three years. The reduction, will be applied for local calls within the roaming country, incoming calls while roaming and text messages. As for data services while roaming in the GCC, the procedure has begun from 1st April 2016 and will continue for five years.
CommsMEA: High prices and long, complicated processes of activation often hinder people from opting for roaming packages. How are you countering that?
Al Hassawi: To encourage our customers to take advantage of roaming packages, we have implemented SMS activations, an online data portal for postpaid customers, and USSD services for prepaid customers. Additionally, we are currently working on a roaming experience app to increase the convenience and accessibility of our roaming bundles.
Haver: We’ve been closely working with operators to develop hybrid roaming steering applications that include server, SIM toolkit and app-based solutions providing subscribers complete visibility of their roaming rates and usage. As well as easy-to-manage tariff menus, purchasing and activation, the solution can suggest personalised roaming plans and notify the subscriber when they are close to exceeding usage limits.
The multi-IMSI component via an OTA server allows a subscriber to automatically switch to a network that offers the lowest available tariff based on their subscription model. All this helps deliver a more seamless roaming experience.
CommsMEA: What plans are on the radar to improve roaming services both for data as well as voice?
Al Hassawi: To ensure exceptional data and voice roaming services, we will start by continuing to please our customers with our surprisingly simple and affordable roaming packages; and to improve these services, we will continually strive to provide a worry free experience for customers taking advantage of our data bundles.
Odeh: Viva has been successful in maintaining excellent roaming service standards by actively monitoring roaming behaviour and by promptly engaging with customers when required. We continue to be committed to further enhance the quality of our customers’ roaming experience by deploying cutting-edge monitoring techniques and building robust procedures to take into consideration their feedback.
Al Sadah: We are focusing on increasing our 4G footprint around the globe. We now have partner market 4G agreements with 58 partners in 46 countries – from Australia to South Africa, from the Netherlands to New Zealand.
CommsMEA: What are the various factors that are taken into consideration while deciding on the roaming charges in various international locations?
Al Hassawi: In deciding on international roaming charges, we consider competition pricing, customer trends and behaviours, customer needs and usage, the destination in question, and a variety of technical aspects and solutions.
CommsMEA: How can prices be reduced further? What kind of technical upgrades are required for this?
Al Hassawi: To further reduce prices, we must consider the pricing of our competitors, TRA regulations, and the evolving demands of our customers.
CommsMEA: What are the additional challenges associated with LTE roaming?
Al Hassawi: Currently, our challenges are based around the fact that not all operators are LTE ready.
Haver: Interoperability between technologies and carriers is a major challenge. Integration of technologies and standardisation of 3G and LTE spectrum is required for seamless roaming. Network ownership also adds complications which is why a central regulatory body such the GSMA or the GCC TRA can prove instrumental in its evolution. The GIPX hub in Bahrain is one such integration initiative which we have seen between Viva and BT.
Al Sadah: The challenge for operators is developing the bundles and packages for a consumer base that is consuming more data than ever before. Though some countries might have a LTE/4G network, they might not be fully equipped to provide LTE with roaming. Doing so brings with it challenges in terms of technical specifications and standards. Network partners agreements are organised and managed through an IPX carrier, which establishes the connection between two network operators. So of course, IPX carriers must have an agreement signed with both parties.
CommsMEA:What kind of revenue potential do you see in the roaming market?
Al Hassawi: The revenue potential is very high because in today’s world, everybody wants to stay connected with their friends and family members while they travel. Especially with upcoming social media trends, many of our customers want to see what their loved ones are doing while traveling.
Odeh: Despite this market’s challenging dynamics, there is an opportunity to transform non-active roamers into active ones by offering valuable roaming packages and attractive rates when roaming. This requires a very focused and sustainable approach.
Haver: We have all the right ingredients to indicate there’s strong potential here. By 2020, global tourism is expected to grow another 15% plus whilst at the same time mobile penetration is expected to rise another 20%. On top of this, recent studies show that 75% of roamers prefer to be inactive. With such a large segment currently lying dormant, you would expect the removal of high charges to stimulate some of these to become active.
CommsMEA: Operators have to ensure that customers know exactly how much using mobile services will cost them when roaming. What systems are in place to take care of this transparency requirement?
Al Hassawi: To reassure our customers and increase roaming use, we have several teams dedicated to various aspects of the billing process, including revenue assurance, fraud assurance, and GSMA-nominated systems and processes.
Haver: When we work with clients we spend a lot of time focusing on device management systems. These can help the subscriber stay informed by notifying them of tariffs and policies as well as, on some platforms, being able to identify which applications are consuming high data. Additional applications can provide suitable cross-sell or upsell value-added service recommendations which give the user greater guidance.
Al Sadah: My Vodafone app enables customers to manage their account from their smartphone. Customers can check their account balance, remaining SMS, minutes and data, view and pay their bill and ultimately stay in control. New features on the website enable people planning trips to see the roaming costs for each country. In addition, all customers travelling abroad receive a text upon arrival to explain roaming rates.
CommsMEA: Do you follow a zero-rating scheme for certain applications in roaming?
Al Hassawi: While roaming, our customers can access the portal at mydata.du.ae, as well as the USSD system, and our roaming app. Customers will soon be able to call our call centre for free while roaming.
CommsMEA: Is there the possibility that lower roaming charges will translate to higher charges otherwise?
Al Hassawi: Roaming costs are associated with the deals we are able to broker with our partner networks, we living in an age of collaboration and by working closely with our partners we are able to create the best value for our customers.
CommsMEA: What’s in place to prevent bill shocks?
Al Hassawi: Prepaid customers have ‘no-bundle, no-browsing’ by default, and they must opt-in to ‘pay-per-use’ data usage or they must buy a bundle. Charges outside of bundles do not exist within our roaming packages. Having said that, we have reserved an AED500 and AED1000 limit for our post-paid customers who need to get connected but do not know how to purchase a bundle.
Odeh: Most of the bill shocks, in recent times, are a result of heavy data usage while roaming. Viva established a mechanism, a year ago, to inform our customers about their data roaming usage by sending SMS alerts as soon as their usage crosses defined thresholds. At the same time, we have also introduced various data packages in the market to allow customers to be able to control their roaming bills.
Vodafone: Ensuring customers understand and control their mobile and data usage and spend is crucial to this. That is why we introduced Smart Limit – a solution which provides customers with the option to control their expenditure. This means that customers receive texts once they reach 75% and 100% of their Smart Limit. We also block customers’ usage once they exceed their limit.
CommsMEA: Can the GCC look forward to complete scraping of roaming charges in the coming years?
Darwish: GCC roaming market is probably the second market after Europe that has regulated roaming. We haven’t established rates as low as Europe. The reason is Europe has actually implemented several phases of roaming regulations. The GCC or any other region can’t go to the last step directly. As the Roaming Working Group, we have understood and acknowledged that there are risks and cost elements that are involved. So, we have reduced the prices as much as we possibly could for now. The next phase is to monitor and assess the markets.
Haver: The eventual removal of roaming charges appears to be a global inevitability and we’ve already witnessed a recent 40% rate reduction in the GCC. The proliferation of roaming alliances and other such initiatives amongst the GCC countries is likely to further support their elimination. The Zain One Network which offers local roaming rates in selected countries across the MEA is a notable example.
CommsMEA: How can operators use roaming to retain consumers and differentiate themselves?
Al Hassawi: Currently, roaming rates are relatively low due to the arrival of unlimited and data bundles. So, the differentiator will be providing a complete experience: including activation methods, latching time and registration to foreign networks, bundle prices, bundle allowances, validities, out-of-bundle charges, and bill shocks.
Odeh: Viva is offering very affordable and flexible data add-ons giving customers heavy data allowances to use in all GCC countries whether they are making a short two days or a full week’s trip. The customers can, at any time and seamlessly, query their package details including validity, remaining allowance, available data add-ons’ options and coverage list, by simply visiting a dedicated portal for this purpose. We have also introduced in the market, a roaming package for KSA that offers voice, data, and SMS by paying a fixed upfront fee.
Haver: First and foremost, operators need to evolve and move away from traditional roaming services. The success of an operator will depend on developing hybrid solutions such as apps that allow personalisation and a variety of roaming plans to suit an individual’s needs.
Roam-like-home plans would de-mystify the service for the user and give them a great deal more confidence in the service. Another differentiator could be allowing users to retain a single number throughout. Ultimately, what will build a strong brand relationship with the end-user is complete transparency coupled with a seamless experience.
Al Sadah: When it comes to roaming, our view is that the best way to attract and retain customers is to focus on delivering the best possible network experience, customer service, and to empower and enable customers to control their expenditure by being clear and transparent about billing.
CommsMEA: What are the steps you have taken over the last six months to encourage uptake of roaming?
Al Hassawi: First, we have taken steps to enhance the customer experience overall. By increasing our preferred partners and making aggressive wholesale deals, we are now able to fulfil our customers’ needs in 78 different countries with 240 different operators. We also have developed different bundle offerings for our customers to choose from depending on their needs, and we have unmatched roaming rates. Moreover, we have launched the first data usage abroad experience, in which customers can buy bundles in the UAE to use abroad within a 30-day time period.
We have also been making improvements to our network by latching time and registration to foreign networks and ensuring better and larger coverage. Finally, we are now offering new LTE coverage with continuous rollouts of LTE services through roaming partners. Today, we have 70 LTE partners around the world.
Odeh: To encourage higher uptake of roaming services, Viva introduced data roaming add-ons for customers. Over the last six months, these products have had significant enhancements adapting them to market changes to better fulfil our customers’ needs. Viva offers the most comprehensive data roaming products that cater to the needs of our active roamers especially for the travellers to GCC countries. Recently, Viva has also introduced, for the very first time in the local market, an add-on that gives full comfort to customers while roaming in KSA; this includes, Voice and SMS allowance along with data. These steps have resulted in better customer experience and in continuous uptake improvement.
Al Sadah: We continue to develop our roaming offer and recently added 33 countries to our Vodafone Passport Pack, which provides up to 2 GB data (1GB in all countries, 1 GB Extra in the GCC), unlimited minutes to receive calls and make calls to Vodafone Qatar numbers for only QR100/week. These include countries across the region as well as countries in the Caribbean. In fact, we are the first operator in the Middle East to cover most of the Caribbean as part of our roaming offer.
We also recently introduced an option for customers to easily renew their passport pack by providing them with prompts before it expires, to ensure they can continue roaming and concentrate on making the most of their trip. Vodafone Passport Pack customers will also enjoy the widest 4G coverage while roaming. This comes at no extra cost to the current Vodafone roaming rates; all customers have to do is enable 4G and data roaming on their smartphone.
Darwish: TRA has been playing an active role in raising consumer awareness about the reduced prices through social media, radio and TV. Moreover, we have encouraged operators to resort to more advertising and increase consumer awareness around roaming prices, roaming packages, etc.