Adding to the growing list of stories about customers who don't understand data roaming but own smartphones is the latest; a Vancouver, BC woman who took the country's love of Facebook a little too far by racking up a $37,000 cell phone bill while visiting Egypt.
How could one rack up such a gargantuan bill, you ask? According to CTV reports, the woman, Alanna Fero, used 1,600 MBs (1.6 GB) worth of data during a two-week trip. She claims to have called her cell phone provider prior to leaving, as one should, but was told that her plan was sufficient, and took that to mean everything was tickity-boo.
Clearly, there was some miscommunication here. The woman followed the right steps by contacting her carrier, Telus, prior to leaving. But somewhere between that phone call and her plane taking off, the costs associated with using data in another country got lost.
The sad part is that while this is the most expensive example I've heard, it's not the first situation like this in Canada. Remember that Calgary man who racked up an $8,000 cell phone bill while traveling in France? He used his iPhone not only to make and receive calls, but also to navigate to various destinations, access a digital translator, and listen to five hour's worth of a streaming rock radio station from his hometown in Calgary. The man claimed ignorance, and that his carrier, Virgin Mobile, failed to tell him about the high costs.
Can you blame Fero? In some ways, yes. One needs to take accountability for his actions, and for the technologies one wishes to use. If you don't understand how a smartphone with data works, you probably shouldn't own one, and you definitely shouldn't be bringing it with you halfway across the world. But on the other hand, isn't it the Telus customer service rep's job to clearly and concisely explain data usage to this woman, and ensure there's no misunderstanding? Did the rep recommend she buy a data package that would include international use? Or tell her to turn off roaming data and use WiFi only? She has an iPhone, after all, and turning off data roaming is a matter of three of four quick button presses. And I can't imagine that even the most techno-phobic person wouldn't understand that loading one typical Website equals XX number of MBs, and XX number of MBs would cost you XX dollars in Egypt. Sure you still want to bring your phone?
I just can't help but feel that while the rep might have vaguely explained the repercussions of using the phone overseas, he didn't really emphasize that using the phone there like she does here could cost thousands. Worse yet: Telus reportedly cut off Fero's service when it noticed the spike (good move), but then turned it back on after Fero called to complain. Did the customer service rep even mention to her how much data she had racked up? Quantify it with a dollar amount? What would really be telling is to hear the phone calls from before Fero left for vacation, and when she called to have her service lit up again.
The bottom line is that as more and more consumers adopt smartphones, the need to educate them on the costs of using the device, and especially data, in other countries, is critical. Perhaps every customer service rep should be trained to teach the customer how to turn data roaming off, prompting them to have to call to find out why it isn't working. Then discuss plan options, ask where he's calling from, determine a budget, and select a plan that will fit within it. Or maybe every mobile device should come with data roaming switched to the "off" position as a default. The belief has always been that smartphones are an early adopter technology, and the people who buy them, along with data plans, know all about things like roaming and bandwidth. Today, that isn't the case. Everyone owns a smartphone; from the tech-savvy youth, to the older Baby Boomer who takes pride in his iPhone. Smartphone owners need to be treated as if they're technophobes; and customer service reps should be able to spot who knows what he's talking about, and who's a prime candidate for potential disaster, and handle the call accordingly.
Snagging thousands of dollars from unsuspecting, ignorant (either by choice or by truth) customers is great for lining the pocketbooks. But the negative publicity, along with the drama surrounding potential lawsuits, just can't be worth it.
But the most important question stemming from this situation: what on earth was Fero doing to accumulate 1.6 GB worth of data in two weeks?
For tips on traveling with a mobile device, see my feature article from June 2009. (Note that some of the specific plan options will be outdated, but the general advice still rings true.)
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