2015-05-19 18:45:39 UTC
Beware the not-so-smartphones that eat your data while you sleep
Mobile users are being hit with massive bills as their handsets access
networks and services even when not in active use
If the cap fits: people travelling abroad can get their provider to
impose a limit on how much data they can use. Photograph: Alamy Stacie
McCormicks half-term break in South Africa cost her the equivalent of
the net salary of the average British worker. But it wasnt the
flights or the accommodation that impoverished her; it was a £15,000
bill from O2 on her arrival home.
The charges, incurred over a 30-hour period, were for data roaming,
and racked up regardless of whether McCormick made or received calls.
For 16 of those hours she was either asleep or on a boat without
Three days into the trip I had reached my agreed data limit of £120,
and because I needed the phone to navigate round South Africa, I
phoned O2 to lift the cap, she says. Within 14 minutes of that call
the charges had gone from £120 to £7,000. I know that my phone would
have been using apps and incurring charges, but Ive been told that my
bill equates to 120 hours of hi-res movie viewing, which makes no
McCormicks case is an extreme example of the shock bills that can
confront smartphone owners when abroad. Many travellers, accustomed to
free Wi-Fi, are unaware that browsing the internet and checking emails
can cost more than phone calls and texts. Even when the phones are
asleep, 3G- and 4G-enabled handsets will automatically seek out
networks to update apps.
Within 14 minutes of O2 lifting the data limit cap the charges had
gone from £120 to £7,000
Last year, the European commission introduced caps on data roaming
charges in member countries, slashing costs for internet use and
downloads from 45p per MB to 16p plus VAT, and making calls 15p a
minute. Outside the EU, however, there are no international
regulations governing charges, which can be as much as £8 per MB,
although EU service providers are obliged to send customers a welcome
message outlining charges when users go abroad.
Nor does telecoms regulator Ofcom restrict what UK service providers
charge customers to access overseas networks, and providers are
predictably cagey on the subject. It is estimated that data roaming
outside the EU costs operators between 25p and £2.50 per MB, which
means that O2, which charges nearly treble this in some countries,
enjoys a profit margin of up to 2,400% per MB. The agreements we have
negotiated with the many networks around the world vary considerably,
an O2 spokesperson says. To make it simple and transparent, we
average that out to provide one price no matter what network
customers are using.
The problem for customers is that, even when they are aware of the
charges, it is difficult to know how much data is being used for each
phone function. Browsing Facebook uses up to 2MB per minute;
navigation apps or radio streaming can devour far more. The bills,
when they come, are not necessarily enlightening. My bill gave no
indication of what I had used and how the £15,000 was arrived at,
McCormick says. One customer services person said there must have
been a mistake and that they would investigate, but another later
insisted the bill was accurate.
O2, which has since reduced McCormicks liability to £2,000 as a
goodwill gesture, blames her for opting out of the restrictions that
cap data usage abroad to £120, and which sent daily alerts about
usage. When she removed the cap we sent her a text message reminding
her that she would be charged at £6 per MB and that she could get in
touch with us to reapply a data cap, O2 says.
Vodafone tops list of most complained about mobile sevices
Customers do not have to leave these shores to rack up unexpected
bills. Smartphones enabled for 3G and 4G automatically switch to a
network when Wi-Fi access is unavailable or temporarily drops out, and
data charges can then rapidly escalate unbeknown to the customer.
Mark Pragnell from Dorset bought mobile phones for himself and his
teenage daughter from Vodafone. He eventually discovered that his
daughters mobile had powered through 48GB of data in 18 days,
prompting bills of more than £1,000 for two months running. My
daughter was connected to free Wi-Fi with data roaming turned off, but
apparently iPhones switch to 3G if the Wi-Fi signal drops momentarily,
and continue to download and update while asleep.
Vodafone claims it cannot cap data use in the UK, nor can it guarantee
alerts warning customers of how much they have spent. They can do
this online by using the My Vodafone app or by ringing 44555, a
Londoner Juliet Chalk thought she was helping her family get a good
nights sleep by switching off the internet router at night; instead,
she has actually endured sleepless nights after her sons phone
switched to 3G while he was in bed, ratcheting up a £313 bill in the
process despite a £50 monthly cap on his account.
I was told that the provider needs 72 hours after any limit has been
reached before it can stop further charges being incurred and that it
does not text customers when they are approaching their limit, Chalk
Customers who feel they have been wrongly charged can take their case
to one of the alternative dispute resolution schemes all operators are
obliged to sign up to if their complaint is unresolved by their
provider after eight weeks, or after the provider sends them a letter
deeming the case closed.
DODGING BILL SHOCK
To avoid unexpectedly high bills there are practical steps that
smartphone users should take at home and abroad.
Š Phone settings can be altered to disconnect 3G while Wi-Fi is being
used to prevent the phone automatically switching to expensive
networks while on home turf; when travelling abroad turn off data
roaming to prevent your phone downloading data without you realising,
and stick to Wi-Fi in cafes and hotels wherever possible. Google and
JiWire offer free iOS and Android apps that search out local Wi-Fi
Mobile operators finally agree to cap bills in cases of theft
Š Make essential downloads such as maps or books before you leave the
UK, and avoid watching films or downloading music unless you have
Wi-Fi. Companies may charge for voicemail messages left on your phone
(plus extra for actually listening to them) while abroad, so turn this
facility off too if possible and avoid opening attachments in emails
or loading photos on to social media.
Š Operators should cut your data connection once youve used around
£40-worth per month, wherever you travel in the world, unless you
choose another limit or opt out of the cap. If you do opt out make
sure you are aware of the charges regardless of whether you actively
use your handset. Uswitch reckons a holidaymaker who opts out and
doesnt make use of free Wi-Fi or switch off data roaming could amass
a £500-a-day bill, depending on where they are in the world.
Š There are apps that compress the amount of data you use, and in
doing so cut your costs. Onavo, for instance, promises to reduce data
usage by 80% in 90 countries. It also has an app which monitors the
amount of data you are using so you can keep tabs on cost.
Š Some providers offer packages with discounted rates for people going
abroad, but be careful that when the bundle is used up the phone
doesnt automatically switch to standard rates.
Š A pay-as-you go sim card bought in the country you are travelling
to, or a global sim from specialist UK providers such as Go-Sim, will
ensure you only pay local rates provided your phone is unlocked,
although it will mean using a different phone number.