Dear Senator Conroy,
Thanks for tackling those f-cking mobile phone companies and their international roaming charges. They certainly are "obscene", as you put it. But it’s not just what they do in New Zealand that you and ACMA need to be looking at
. What Optus is doing in Europe is even worse.
I’ve been in France for the past two weeks and have been puzzled as to why Optus wouldn’t let me pick up my voicemails or send a text message on my iPhone. I had just topped up my prepaid Optus mobile with $30 and then $50 after leaving Australia.
Even before the latest rows about phone company price gouging
, I was well aware Optus charges a fortune for international roaming, so I bought a French SIM card as soon as I landed. In the meantime, I had turned off data roaming and switched off my phone as we left Australia. I turned both on again for a couple of minutes when we stopped off in South Korea to pick up a voicemail, then did so for a second time a few days later, after getting to France, to pick up my emails.
So what should that have cost? A couple of dollars at most, I figured. I made no calls, as far as I can remember, and did not surf the net, as far as I can recall. I’m careful. My father grew up in the Depression.
So there was surely no way that my $80 could have gone down the plughole, was there? Yet every time I tried to send a text message, I got a warning from Optus that my credit had run out. And when I tried to ring my voicemail to record a new message, to tell people to ring my new French number, I got the same result: give us more moolah.
Bewildered, I rang Optus' technical department to find out what the problem was. I was soon passed on to a guy in billing -- in India -- who explained that there was nothing wrong with my phone: it was just that I had spent all my money. Very kindly, he took me through the charges.
"But that's not possible," I told him, "I have hardly used the phone!"
The voicemail call from South Korea, lasting less than one minute, had cost me $12.95. Yes, $12.95.
But that was just the start of it. On landing in France, I had apparently incurred 25 charges of $3.96 for accessing the internet. Except that I hadn't used it, I told him.
"The thing is you are charged $3.96 every time you try to connect, with a minimum of one second," he explained. "You have probably been making a connection then logging off."
"So when did this internet browsing occur?" I inquired. He proceeded to give me precise dates and times, which showed that 23 of these 25 "browsing sessions" had been clustered into five minutes as I sat waiting at the station at Charles de Gaulle Airport, with charges of $3.96 cascading down roughly every 10 seconds. The duration of each session (I can now see from my bill online) shows up as 00.00 seconds.
So it seems I was charged $90 in the space of five minutes for not getting onto the internet. And completely cleaned out.
"Would you like to recharge?" my Indian friend asked me kindly. "No. I would not. In fact would like to have nothing to do with Optus ever again," I told him. "I’ve been a customer of your network for 10 years and I'm appalled. This is daylight f-cking robbery. How can you possibly keep doing this after all these years of complaints?"
So, Senator Conroy, your suggested solution -- that phone companies should be forced to make roaming charges clear to their customers -- is not good enough. It will only apply for roaming in New Zealand, if it ever happens, and it doesn't begin to answer the problem, which is that Optus (and other mobile companies) should not be levying these outrageous charges in the first place. How could five minutes of internet browsing cost Optus $90 even if I had got through.
Optus and its fellow phone companies blame those pesky foreign companies for charging outrageous rates. But if you look at Optus' website you'll see it charges its prepaid mobile customers up to five times as much as customers on contract. So how on earth does it justify that? It charges prepaid mobile users up to $25 a minute to make an international call from France and up to $5 a minute to receive a call from anywhere. It also charges up to $6.60 for every 60 kilobytes of data sent or received, which is $20 to send an average iPhone photo, or more than $200 if you want to send it full resolution.
That is a rip-off, pure and simple. And it's time it was stopped. Do your worst, Senator. You might even win some votes. And while you're about it, can you ask Optus why I can't get mobile phone reception in the middle of Sydney? I won’t be needing it, because I’ll be switching to another provider when I get back, but those poor mugs who are still locked into an Optus contract might appreciate being able to use the phones they're paying for.