We don't need no stinkin' 3G

One of the most baffling things about global cellular providers is that they don’t seem to want the money of business travelers. When you’re at home with FICA documentation relative to your territory they are quite happy to concoct confusing package options designed to liberate you from your last cent at month end and yet leave a smile on your face because they gave you a shiny phone – but when you’re traveling and potentially at your most dependent on communications, they make sure you won’t be paying them for it.

The problem began, well – at the beginning. Negotiations between operators led to ridiculous roaming agreements that make the bubonic plague look like a good idea. They collectively realised they could hold travelers hostage and fleece them for cellular access.

When you get home from your travels and receive a bill that resembles Jacob Zuma’s renovation budget they will simply tell you that they can’t help because the network you were roaming on tallied your usage. Contact that network and they will guide you back to your home call centre. You get the idea.

Still today, in 2010, it is possible to travel to destinations where it will cost you more than R200 for one megabyte of data to travel from the interwebs to your mobile phone and more than R25 for one minute of voice.

I’ma say that again – over R200 for one (1) megabyte.

What the operators apparently fail to realise, however, is that while making R200 per measly megabyte is great trade when you have a captive market there are now other ways to connect.

I am currently in London where I would have to pay Vodafone UK ridiculous roaming fees despite the fact that they own the mobile network I subscribe to back home . Oh sure, I can get data for R17.50 per megabyte thanks to the ownership, but calls are still heinously expensive and even R5 per megabyte would be R4.75 too much as far as I’m concerned. Especially considering that the cost of delivering that megabyte to me is probably too small to calculate.

Instead of paying them to compromise my children’s education I have rather been making use of the many WiFi hotspots spread throughout London by BT, ex British Telecom. The BT Openzone hotspots are more plentiful than boiled peas in London and I can access them using my Internet Solutions (IS) WiFi credentials from back home. Better yet, you can pay a mere 5 pounds for a month of access to BT Openzone.

And then. Skype.

In this equation, thanks to Skype’s many charms that include the ability to call anywhere in the world at local rates and even get a landline number for people to call you on, the cellular operators make squat.

I connect to WiFi, the interwebs and Skype. No 3G. No R200 per megabyte and other nasty surprises at month end. Disintermediation in all its splendor.

BT also turns the home routers of its landline subscribers into Openzone hotspots, so I was even able to connect from a friend’s house in Windsor, outside of the city. That’s right – they don’t have Telkom here.

If I went back in time to 1995 and explained to people that the mobile phones making their way into the market around then would offer everything from email to fart applications one day in the future, but that you couldn’t use them overseas because of ridiculous roaming charges, people just wouldn’t understand.

Flying skateboards were more plausible than a reality in the 21st century where you have a mobile phone that magically carries communications through the air but you can’t use it overseas because of cost. And yet here we are.

Instead of charging reasonable roaming rates and making a modest profit our cellular networks are rather risking making nothing as more and more savvy travelers make other plans. You only have to have one horrible scare after a short business trip abroad to learn better than to use cellular access in other countries.

So until the world’s operators wake up and smell the 802.11n, I’ll say more power to Skype and companies like BT that have put WiFi everywhere we need it. And I will go to the ends to ensure that cellular operators make jack out of me while I’m overseas. If any of them are reading this: kindly stop halting our progress as a species and make it possible to communicate from anywhere. That’d be nice.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.