Talkin' the Low-Down LTE Roaming Blues

While LTE networks are growing across the globe, the issue of how to connect them seamlessly for travelers remains a rat’s nest of frequency challenges, technology issues, and pricing questions.

On an Innovation Generation live chat with Martin Guilfoyle, the vice president of innovation and R&D at mobile interconnect provider Syniverse, a number of questions and concerns were aired -- the biggest being, how will operators charge for LTE roaming?

As one chatterer pointed out, "Pricing will be a mess among 3G, LTE/4G, and 4G+ options just within the U.S. When we bring in EU and ROW nations, it will be chaos for a little while, and some roaming prices are bound to be absurd." Consumers' expectations may well be to pay the same rate on an IP-based LTE network abroad as they would on their home IP-based LTE network. The reality, however, is that while the underlying network is the same, the frequencies are all different. Even where they do align (on 1800MHz in much of the world), roaming relationships between operators could be costly; a cost they'll likely pass on to their customers for some time.

In Europe, planned changes in the 2014 Roaming Regulation could help bring down this cost by instituting price caps, although there is skepticism around what effect they’ll have in practice.

Syniverse's Guilfoyle said there are other innovative ways of controlling costs emerging, such as session-based pricing or bundling the cost of roaming into a home usage.

"Sensitivity can be reduced as long as they know what they're getting and are assured they will not receive an unexpectedly high bill upon return," he wrote on the chat.

In the meantime, consumers are finding their own way around the roaming challenge by seeking Wi-Fi abroad and turning off their wireless data entirely. According to Juniper Research, Wi-Fi networks will handle the majority of mobile data traffic by 2017. The analyst firm says there will be 90,000 petabytes of data generated by mobile devices in 2017, but 60 percent will go over Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi isn't a reason to make LTE roaming a backburner issue. In fact the revenue they are losing to Wi-Fi is one reason operators are exploring how to make staying on the wireless network more desirable.

Guilfoyle noted that pricing to the end user is moving in a downward direction, but asked about the future of roaming rates, he concluded, "there's a lot of forces at play right now -- from regulatory requirements to growing data usage. It'll be interesting to see how it pans out!"

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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