No holiday for consumers when it comes to paying for data away
Free to roam from home but data remains a costly holiday extra
Your calls and texts may cost the same abroad as at home, but beware of your data usage. Photograph: Getty Images
After gouging travelling consumers for the guts of two decades, the good times are almost completely over for mobile phone operators across the EU.
Back when mobile phones were the new big thing, operators used to charge an absurd 10p for every text message we sent and even more than that for a minute’s worth of talking. The charges when people had the temerity to try to use their phones outside of their home country were even more scandalous.
In the early part of this century a four-minute mobile phone call to Ireland from Italy would have cost about a fiver and it would have been double that for anyone calling home from Malta. Even receiving calls cost a fortune and anyone answering their phone in Rome and talking for a few minutes could expect a charge of €4 while doing the same thing in Malta would have cost €8.
When it came to data things were even worse as a German woman who downloaded an episode of Lost while on holidays in France only to be hit with a phone bill of €46,000 would probably testify.
But things have been changing in recent years and the EU has been very proactive in bringing mobile operators to heel. It has been a slow process though and regulators have taken a decade to get us to where we are today. And where are we? From June 15th roaming charges across the EU will be abolished and people will be able to roam like home. Almost.
Making telephone calls and sending text messages will soon cost exactly the same no matter where in Europe you are making them and you will be able to use whatever allowance you have at home abroad without any penalty.
Roaming and data charges
But when it comes to roaming charges and data – and that is where all the money is to be made and paid now – the end is not yet nigh.
Earlier this year Three Mobile got a lot of flack when it tried to make its “all you can eat” data offers a “service benefit” for domestic users instead of it being a core part of a contract. As a core benefit Three would have had to offer it to all users who roamed. It did not like the sound of that so instead tried to set caps for data roaming. The EU wasn’t having it and within hours of the plan being made public, the European Commission issued a release saying that if it tried to circumvent the rules, it wold be punished.
So the company U-turned and has rolled out a new plan which will see it apply a fair usage formula to users which has been agreed by European phone regulators including ComReg.
Under the new plan Three bill-pay customers will get a data roaming allowance of 6–7 gigabytes (gb) depending on their contact while Prepay users will get 5gb of free roaming data once they have spent €20 topping up. The costs for people who breach the caps will be about €10 per gigabyte.
Much of that cost is down to the wholesale prices operators charge each other. Right now, under EU rules they can charge each other €7.70 per gigabyte falling to €2.50 by 2022.
But all the talk of gigabytes and the like is of little use to consumers with no idea how much data they consume using various apps.
So how much data do you use and should you worry about the caps?
According to Meteor, a person who posts three updates on Facebook per day and tweets 25 times a day, uploads four Instagram pics, posts 30 messages on Whatsapp and streams radio for 30 minutes daily will use 1.3gb in an average month. Such a phone user will be grand and won’t come close to breaching any data cap.
A person who streams the radio for two hours each day and listens to another hour of music on Spotify and watches 10 minutes of YouTube videos as well as posting two Facebook updates and five tweets will rack up 4.35gb of data in a month which takes them close to the cap.
The person who watches 30 minutes of Netflix per day and the same amount of YouTube clips as well as five Facebook updates, 30 minutes of radio streaming and five tweets will eat 7.25gb of data each month.
Meteor has published a ready reckoner when it comes to data usage which can be accessed on store.meteor.ie/bandwidth-calculator.
But how much do individual apps use?
Netflix: When it comes to avoiding bill shock, this is probably the app that needs the most attention. There are multiple settings at which you can watch or stream Netflix on a mobile device. At the lowest quality setting 1gb is used in four hours of viewing. At the medium setting you get two hours per gigabyte and at the highest setting 1gb will be consumed in just one hour. At the very highest HD Netflix setting, you will go through 3gb in an hour. Were someone to be foolish enough to watch Netflix at that setting for an hour a day over the course of a two-week holiday, they could expect to come home to a bill of almost €500.
YouTube: As with Netflix there are multiple resolution options. The lowest needs 300 megabytes (mb) per hour while the default medium setting will eat 700mb in an hour. The high-resolution setting will use 3gb in an hour. So the HD option is much the same as with Netflix.
FaceTime: While this is another video service, the good news is that it is not too heavy on data and an hour’s worth of calls will use about 85mb of data.
Web surfing: The amount of data used while simply surfing the web depends on which sites you visit and how graphic heavy they are but an hour’s browsing of pretty standard websites is likely to require about 60mb of data.
Facebook: If you are just scrolling through your newsfeed marvelling at how old your school friends are and liking the odd bit of positive affirmation posted by people you vaguely know, you will probably not use more than 80mb over the course of an hour. If you happen to watch a video or a Facebook Live thing, the amount of data you use will double.
Snapchat: Sending or getting a solitary Snap will use about 1mb of data and if you spend an hour on the social network, you will use 160mb. Spend an hour on Snapchat every day over the course of a two-week break and you will use about 2gb.
Instagram: The bad news for lovers of the picture-sharing platform is that it eats a lot of data. If you spend an hour on the service uploading pics, looking at the pics others upload and maybe posting the odd Instagram story, you will use in excess of 500mb of data in an hour.
Spotify: Not all streaming services are equal and some of them will eat up your data at a considerably faster rate than others. Using this particular streaming service for an hour a day will probably cost you in the region of 450mb of data over the course of a fortnight abroad.
Google maps: This is not as data heavy as you might think and there are ways you can download the maps while you are in a wifi zone which will make the data usage when you are on the road absolutely negligible. If you are using it at full power, it will eat just under 1mb for every three kilometres you travel so you will be able to cover 300km for about 100mb. While it is pretty light on data, it is a demon when it comes to draining your battery.
TuneIn radio: If you can’t do without your Morning Ireland fix while you are on a campsite in Spain, you will probably find yourself accessing this rather splendid streaming service. The bad news is that if you listen to the entire programme, it will cost you about 400mb in data. Do that for your whole holiday and you will have reached your cap, without so much as a tweet sent or a Facebook post liked.
WhatsApp: The good news is that instant messaging services such as this one tend to be pretty light on data and if you spend an hour a day sending and getting messages – once they are predominantly text based, you might get away with 5–10mb per day.