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March 01, 2017

MWC: Mittal Calls for No More Roaming Charges

When a figure like Sunil Bharti Mittal—who's both chairman of the Groupe Special Mobile Association (GSMA) and founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises in India—openly declares that he's out to stop mobile roaming charges worldwide, it's worth paying attention. That's exactly what he did recently during the Mobile World Congress (MWC) event, the GSMA's big trade show.

Mittal took the stage at MWC to point out that, increasingly, we have a “global network,” one that works no matter where a user happens to physically be. It used to be, Mittal pointed out, that users would have to take entirely different phones along when traveling overseas; an American would have to have not only his or her American mobile device, but also one for whatever area in which he or she was traveling.  That's not the case so much anymore, though admittedly, there's still some subscriber identity module (SIM) card switching going on.

Yet Mittal also made a key point to support his effort; mobile means less than it once did. When users from developed nations travel, he noted, about 55 percent of said travelers switch off mobile data altogether, waiting for Wi-Fi access at a hotel, coffee shop, or similar location. He further estimates that when travelers from emerging markets travel, said travelers shut down mobile and maybe even voice at even higher levels. So why have roaming charges at all?

Here, Mittal is putting his own money where his mouth is; he's already taken steps to shut down mobile roaming charges completely at Bharti Airtel.  Further, he even put a timetable on the move, promising that, within his term at GSMA, roaming charges would be “...a thing of the past.”

This actually corresponds well with two key developments: one, Randall Stephenson's 2012 announcement that one day smartphones would come with data-only plans, and two, the incoming development of 5G access.  It's entirely possible to send voice signals over data plans, a practice currently known as Voice over LTE (VoLTE), based on Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) systems. As 5G systems start to roll out, we'll have the equivalent of fiber-optic access available over a wireless signal, and that would mean more than enough bandwidth for widespread mobile VoIP use. To get rid of roaming charges now, therefore, might allow businesses to keep voice traffic business, at least somewhat, rather than losing it to 5G and VoIP.

While Mittal's projections may prove too ambitious to be real, he's certainly got a plan to get there. It's one that leaves consumers better off as well, which makes it well worth considering.

Edited by Alicia Young

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