Mobile roaming is still one of the biggest bugbears for any company that has an international workforce. In spite of efforts by the European Union and other international bodies to cap the amount that mobile network operators can charge customers for using their mobile phones abroad, companies around the world are still regularly forking out for exorbitant phone bills.

Juniper Research expects operator revenues generated from mobile roaming to exceed $80 billion by 2017, compared to over $46 billion this year. These revenues will largely be driven by increasing data usage, which will account for over 40 percent of total usage ($35 billion) by 2017, according to senior analyst Nitin Bhas.

However, there is an expectation these days that people are constantly connected and, for most business employees, switching off their mobile phone while abroad is simply not an option. This means that, until regulations come in to abolish international roaming charges, most consumers and businesses just have to suck it up.

No more roaming charges

One company trying to overcome the problem of international roaming is Truphone, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that offers customers standard local rates rather than roaming rates in countries where it has partnerships with local operators. There are currently four “Truphone countries” – United Kingdom, United States, Australia and the Netherlands.

Truphone works by piggybacking on local mobile networks in each country. It does not own the radio access network, but it owns everything else, including the home location registers (HLRs), the short message service centres (SMSCs), the gateway GPRS support nodes (GGSNs) and the session border controllers (SBCs).

This allows it to run its patented multi-IMSI technology, which holds multiple phone numbers on a single SIM card. (An IMSI is an identifier, a bit like an IP address). So a user could have a UK number, a US number and an Australian number all on the same SIM, and when that user calls an overseas contact it will be as if they are calling from a local number.

Furthermore, when the user travels to a Truphone country, the mobile network will recognise the IMSI for that country, and allow the user to make local calls at local rates. Unlike other international MVNOs, which require the user to switch off their UK number, switch on their US number, and forward all of their UK calls to their US number, Truphone is able to switch automatically over the air.

Truphone’s service is not limited to the countries where the company has established local networks. It also provides discounted roaming in over 220 countries worldwide - similar to the ‘bolt-ons’ offered by mainstream mobile operators. These are grouped together by continent, so a user can sign up for a “EU27” bundle, an “Americas” bundle or an “Asia Pacific” bundle.

Testing in the 'Truphone zone'

I tried out Truphone's service over a two-month period, during which time I visited the United States, Spain and Turkey. The company provided me with a breakdown of my spending for comparison with my existing T-Mobile contract.

I was put on Truphone’s “Individual 500” tariff, which includes 500 minutes, 500 SMS and 500MB of data for £40 per month. This compares to £33 per month for my current T-Mobile plan, which includes 2,000 minutes, unlimited texts and unlimited UK data.

For a more like-for-like comparison, Truphone Individual 2000 (which includes 2,000 minutes, 2,000 SMS amd 2,000MB data) costs £60 per month, but this is currently only available in the UK.

Where Truphone really comes into its own is in so-called Truphone countries. On my visit to the US I made 15 minutes of calls to the UK, sent 7 texts to US numbers and used 68.7MB of data, and everything was included in my Truphone contract.

By contrast, T-Mobile would have charged me £18 for calls, £3.50 for texts and £50 for data. Together with fairly minimal usage in the UK, my total Truphone bill for for the month came to £46.87, compared £121.37 with my current T-Mobile plan, making Truphone the clear winner.

Outside of Truphone countries, however, things are a little less clear-cut. During my week in Spain, I made 63.3 minutes of calls to the UK, sent 57 texts and used 384.8MB of data. Spain is not currently a Truphone country but is due to become one later this year, along with Germany, Poland and Hong Kong.

With Truphone, the calls cost £12.66, the texts cost £3.99 and the data cost £90 (based on buying a 500MB roaming bundle for use in the EU27), which is a total of £106.65 on top of the monthly plan.

By comparison, the calls on T-Mobile would have cost £18.23, texts would have cost £5.07, and data would have cost £70 (based on buying two 200MB boosters), which is a total of £93.30 on top of my monthly plan - bringing it in cheaper than the Truphone contract.

Once Spain becomes a Truphone country, however, all of the calls, text and data will be included within bundle, so again Truphone will come out on top.

Reader beware...

Turkey, unfortunately, is another matter. Turkey does not fall within Truphone's “EU27” bundle, so does not benefit from its special rates, nor is it in line to become a Truphone country any time soon.

Although I made no calls or texts and only used 118.5MB of data, it cost me a whopping £592.50, (based on £5 per MB) compared to £80 with T-Mobile (based on two 50MB and one 20MB boosters).

As it turns out, T-Mobile offers the most competitive rates in the UK for Turkey. O2 charges £6 per MB and Orange £8 per MB, so generally Truphone is still competitive amongst other network providers. But reader beware, it is crucial to check that the country you are travelling to is covered by the tariff you have subscribed to.

Again, with some extra data usage back home in the UK (136.4MB), and 11 minutes of calls to premium UK numbers, my Truphone bill for the month came to £740.80, versus £207.95 on T-Mobile.

In a statement emailed to Techword, Truphone said: “We take our competitive offering seriously, and are constantly working to bring down the cost of using your mobile devices abroad. We’re taking urgent action to develop solutions in any market where we find we are challenged by the competition.”

However, this is an interesting example of how business users can get caught out, and end up with unexpected bill shock. Anyone using an international MVNO service should therefore be very careful to check the terms of their contract and avoid getting lulled into a false sense of security.

Although this was a very non-scientific experiment, it seems that there is great potential for anyone travelling within the “Truphone zone” to save money, and the addition of four extra countries later this year will make it a much more attractive offering.

However, until business users can be confident that they can travel freely without the risk of being hit with surprise charges, the appeal is limited.

Doing better business

One point that is interesting to note is the way that the user’s behaviour changes when they are using a service such as Truphone, versus a normal contract with international roaming charges.

“From our own internal data, we know that about 70 percent of people turn off their phones when they go abroad, and 92 percent change their behaviour significantly,” said Mark Pinnes Head of Communications at Truphone.

“When a Truphone user goes to a Truphone country, they stay connected, so when they get home they’re not met with 1,000 unread emails, an angry husband or wife, and customers that don't like them; they just stay connected. And that is the focus of our business.”

Pinnes admitted that Truphone is never the cheapest offering in a local market, but that is not its intent. While price is a key driver for these kinds of service, Truphone believes that price alone is not enough to create a multi-national experience. The quality of the service abroad also has to be as good as the service at home.

Truphone has therefore recently introduced a new innovation called caller line identity (CLI), which allows the user to get instant session control, instant set-up and high quality data, so that their experience improves significantly.

Pinnes explained that using data while abroad on a mainstream operator contract requires the local network to ping the UK network for authorisation to connect the user. This can take a few seconds, and often the signal is not constant, so every time the connection drops, it has to ping the UK network again, so the data experience becomes very clunky.

Because Truphone behaves like a local network within Truphone countries, there is no need to ping back to the UK, so the quality of experience for data and also for voice in other countries is significantly better than it would be with other players.

“If you look at the data, and you chart call quality versus call length and call frequency, it's a linear relationship. That means when the call gets better, people make more calls and they stay on them for longer,” said Pinnes.

“Most of our customers right now are in the business space. These companies give mobile phones to their employees in order to enable them to do business, and we know they make more calls when the quality gets better, so these businesses do better business internationally by us working hard to give them that quality.”

The death of roaming?

Truphone is not the only company to offer an alternative to international roaming. Voiamo, for example, offers a service called GlobalGig, which offers mobile roaming at local rates in the UK, US and Australia via a mobile hotspot, which supports up to five devices.

These companies count many large enterprises among their customers, demonstrating a clear demand for international mobile services that enable business employees to stay connected while abroad.

However, as my experiment shows, MVNOs are not a panacea. There are still gaps in these services that can result in 'bill shock' if companies are not careful to check the terms of their contracts, and until the services become seamless across all borders, they are likely to remain niche.