It has been a long time since I wrote my last blog, partly because work has been hectic. Now that I am finally on holiday, I have some time for some blog creativity. Don’t feel sorry for me; I enjoy writing blogs and find it the ideal way to relax before the rigor of time at the beach!
I have previously written, in a personal blog, about the theme of standardization where I referenced the history of GSM as a standard. I thought that that would be my first and last telecommunications history lesson. Turns out I was wrong.
A couple of months ago a friend and former colleague reached out with an interesting offer. “Steve, I’ve been clearing out my office and I’ve found a CD that might be of interest to you – '4th Annual Conference – Taking Roaming into the Future' ''. It sounded interesting so I asked him to upload the content onto the cloud.
As I logged onto Google Drive I was shocked to see that most of the files' names appeared to reference surnames of people that I knew personally. The event took place in 1999 and was before I even entered the roaming world. I’ve now had a chance to review all the content and, whilst I am no Michael J Fox, let me assure you, there are plenty of fascinating past insights that are relevant to the future. Whilst the presentations may no longer totally match our business today, there is value to view them as a snapshot of roaming history. At this point, I should quickly note that nothing in any of my blogs is meant as a criticism of the authors of the presentations. We can all be clever after the event.
I’ll start with the first item on the agenda: “Regulating Global Roaming”. Delivered by my friend Pietro Cotino, Omnitel Pronto Italia, now Vodafone Italy, it was a paper on the GSM Association’s perspective and seemingly written by the GSMA. It is notable that despite it being a paper on the GSMA’s views of regulation, the word regulation does not appear once in the deck (to be precise, it does appear in a legal disclaimer but that is not relevant to the content of the paper). The following ominous sentences do appear in the deck:
- Prices have not generally decreased, because of current market and technical constraints:
- Market: roaming users are considered to be still price insensitive;
- Technical constraints: the very IOT features (discounting and repricing) will be fully available with the introduction of TAP3 (April 2000).
With an approach like this, it is hardly surprising that the EU introduced roaming regulation just 8 years later. In fact, the CD included a transcript of the panel discussion that followed the GSMA presentation. One of my predecessors at one2one, what is now EE, Robin Saphra, asked a question about the European Commission announcing that it would be conducting a self-initiated inquiry into the levels of roaming prices which they think may be operating anti-competitively. Reading the transcript it is clear that all the speakers believed that there was no price sensitivity or elasticity. I think the post-regulation explosion in data traffic proved otherwise. The warning signs were there all along, but sadly operators did too little too late, with the possible exception of the ground-breaking Vodafone Passport offer launched in 2005. In fact, Vodafone stated at the time that “Vodafone Passport is leading our industry’s response to these [EU] concerns [about roaming costs]”. Sadly, whilst Vodafone may have led the response to the looming threat of regulation, the rest of the industry failed to adequately respond. As most of the UK operators reintroduce roaming charges in the post-Brexit period, can we question whether they have learned the lessons of roaming history?
The GSMA paper notes the recent specifications for both GPRS roaming and CAMEL – both of which were to become huge successes. Sadly, the comment on Optimal Routing that “specifications have been ready for some time already, but no real requirement from operators” was to never change and I doubt it was ever implemented anywhere. This illustrates well that just because technology can deliver complex solutions, the market must be ready. MMS interworking is another example of a failed technical solution and arguably, for some time, VoLTE roaming. Hopefully, with the introduction of solutions such as Mobileum’s RoamFlow that pain point will disappear.
The next item on the agenda addressed “Winning Roaming Strategies from around the World”. Four papers from four continents, each of which shares something of interest and relevance.
There were a couple of interesting points from the Latin America presentation that still resonate today. The first was a reference to a marketing campaign for the World Cup in France ’98. Such campaigns are still the bread and butter for numerous operators around the world. Even we in Mobileum have been supporting the upcoming World Cup in Qatar with our GlobalRoamer® special packages to assure the quality of service and experience – sorry for the plug but it is irresistible! The other was the promotion of inter-standard roaming. In its infancy in 1999, its time has come and gone as the world has standardized around common technology. The question is, how long will things remain that way? Some of the political movements in the world that are beginning to impact technology could very well result in divergent technological paths. Could inter-standard roaming be set for a return?
Again, another familiar face and friend, Todd Tomkinson, presented the update from North America on the GSM Alliance. Pooling resources from 1997, the goal was to accelerate the launch of GSM roaming whilst addressing the complexity of multiple operators, in multiple regions, within North America. In the end, market forces took over and merger and acquisition activity eventually led to the tier 1 national operators that address the vast majority of, but not all, coverage needs. This very point was clearly articulated in a presentation by Paul Ruppert, then of Pacific Bell. Whilst roaming hubs still exist, and there is a certain market for them, the bulk of all roaming business is conducted operator to operator, with a smaller role for hubs to address the long tail of traffic.
The paper from Orange Israel (now Partner) gives an overview of the history of mobile communications in a small but heavily penetrated market. Orange exploited its technological advantage being the only operator “to offer real roaming”. That advantage powered huge growth and remained for some time until their competitors migrated to GSM. This lesson from Israel of short-cutting technology evolutions has been ably demonstrated by Jio, Dish, and Rakuten, respectively in India, the USA, and Japan, who launched their networks on 4G only.
The final regional paper on “India – How is the Indian Market Opening Up to the Rest of the World?” was presented by my colleague Abraham Punnoose, who at the time already had deep expertise in the uniquely complex local roaming market.
It is mind-boggling to read this paper and compare the facts of 1999 to today. Back then mobile subscribers were a fraction of landline subscribers. 17 operators have now shrunk to just 3 operators whilst the subscriber base has grown from 1 million to 1 billion. Abraham notes some of the challenges of roaming in India at that time – the most obvious was just the sheer number of operators. I recall how we struggled just to keep on top of the names and locations of our roaming partners. That said, out of that particular issue came one of my closest friendships. In a moment of desperation, I reached out to the roaming manager of Hutchison Max in Mumbai. He kindly audited our information and website, asking for nothing in return. Eventually, that person, Dhiraj Wazir, moved to the UK, we hired him and we have been close friends ever since. He is now the CEO of Rocco Strategy.
As with North America, competition and market forces (and some actions of regulators and politicians) have addressed the complexity of the Indian landscape. A clear lesson from both of these markets is that the market will eventually solve market complexity issues.
In the next blog, I’ll look at the introduction of TAP 3 and how that relates to issues of relevance today such as BCE and VoLTE.
 For more details see Vodafone’s 2005-06 Corporate Responsibility Report, page 18: https://www.vodafone.com/content/dam/vodcom/sustainability/pdfs/2005-06_vodafonecr.pdf
Accessing the Presentations: part I