When you go on the OpenSignal website (which I’m sure is as much an integral part of your morning routine as making a cup of coffee) the first thing you see is our coverage map – a dappled net draped across Europe, fraying slightly at the edges as our number of users dwindles in Belarus and the Ukraine. This map shows the limits of connectivity, where you can, and can’t, get signal. It is this problem of incomplete coverage that our app and website are designed to combat, either by giving you a practical solution to poor coverage or by giving guidance as to which network is most likely to be the best for where you are.
The map for Western Europe almost looks like the utopian dream of an EU commissioner: A technologically connected continent, homogenized by the ubiquitous reach of cell phone signal. The reality, of course, is very different – with cell phone service patchy and of differing quality both between and within countries. A particular point at which the enduring separateness of European member states is brought home is, as the Guardian recently reported, for those who live on the border between nationally bounded cell phone networks. The inhabitants of St Margaret-at-Cliffe (on the south coast of England, at its nearest point to France) often find themselves picking up French signal, causing them to be charged roaming costs for domestic phone use.
This is not a problem that’s isolated to Europe, similar problems have been reported on both the Mexican and Canadian borders with the US. While data roaming is automatically turned off on most phones, the additional cost of calls and text messages while roaming on a fixed contract can be substantial, and obviously infuriating when no actual geographical roaming is taking place. In Europe, at least, roaming costs are somewhat limited by the EU, and other partnerships around the world (Singapore/Malaysia, Australia/New Zealand) exist to lower roaming costs. What the example of the inhabitants of St Margaret-at-Cliffe shows us, however, is how ridiculous roaming charges really are.
That the inhabitants of this charming south coast village can slip seamlessly and inadvertently between networks provided by operators in different countries only goes to show quite how minimal the barriers to international network access are. As our cellular devices increasingly become the point through which we orient ourselves in both the digital and physical worlds, it seems increasingly archaic that this capability is cut off by the limits of political geography. This is especially true when we consider that the states themselves have no management role in governing the cellular infrastructure (they licence the spectrum and then let operators essentially get on with it). It’s as though you had to pay an additional charge per mile for driving your car in another country, except that the highways being used are built from information, not tarmac.
In general my position is that excessive state intervention has a distorting effect on markets and should be avoided where possible. In this instance, however, the market is already distorted by artificial roadblocks established by multinational operators along semi-arbitrary national lines. The major carriers operate (though sometimes under different names) in most major European countries. There is no reason that there need be a division along state lines, the technology is all compatible, the operator profits go to the same place. The operators, essentially, are using international borders as a way of justifying charging their customers twice. If I have a contract for £30 a month in the UK and I go to Spain, Vodafone charge me an additional £3 per day to use my contract abroad. Or, to look at it another way, my £30 contract sits unused while I pay a £90 per month additional contract to use the services abroad that I am already paying for in the UK. This, I argue, is unjustified as there is no more a need for roaming charges in Europe than there would be for charging New Yorkers extra for using their phones in Massachusetts.
Beyond EU intervention, however, it is difficult to see how roaming in Europe could be abolished. What is clear is that no one benefits if roaming costs dampen overall phone use. While roaming costs are a valuable source of revenue for operators, their abolition should mean increased phone use abroad, leading to a corresponding increase in revenue from pay-as-you-go users (who account for approximately 50% of the UK market). This should go some way towards obviating the reduction in revenue. In any case, international roaming across European operators who are part of the same multinational carrier is, as I have argued, unjustified. The abolition of roaming would mean that the OpenSignal coverage map becomes a true reflection of European connectivity: sometimes patchy, sometimes slow, but always sans Frontières.