Thursday, March 27, 2008

Catering to the tele-nomads

These days I'm somewhat of a telecom nomad, spreading my time between Thailand and Australia with occasional forays into other parts of Asia. I realise this is not a unique situation, in fact there is a growing band of people who are permanent roamers and who need connectivity in multiple destinations. Strangely, there are few operators tapping into this potentially high-spending market.

I realised this when I tried to get a pre-paid mobile data account in Australia -- most retail outlets thought they didn't exist and in fact most of the operators don't have such a package. Where pre-paid mobile data offerings do exist, such as through Telstra's Next G network, it's so expensive as to be unusable ($59 for 200MB that must be used within 30 days). Yet in the less mature market of Thailand, pre-paid data offerings are relatively common and great for travellers or business people wanting to connect wirelessly from just about any location. Better yet, they have affordable packages (unlimited data for around US$30 per month).

Another drawback across much of the region is the onerous requirements for signing up for telecom services, with seemingly no allowance for anyone that doesn't fit their view of a regular citizen. For example in Thailand, anyone without a Thai identity card, or work permit in the case of foreigners, can just about forget signing up for post-paid phone or Internet service. And my recent experience in Australia has, if anything, been worse.

Downunder you can have a full suite of identification documents -- passports, residence certificates, healthcare cards -- but if you don't have a utility bill with your current address you can't sign-up for wireless broadband. So someone travelling around the country for a year, or working on a contract for six months or a new migrant or -- in my case -- someone who hasn't lived in the country for some time simply can't get service.

At least the retail outlets could see the irony of not being able to sign someone up for the utility of telecom service because they didn't have an existing utility bill with their address on it. The problem was that there didn't seem to be any flexibility in the service ordering process to account for non-standard cases. And with just about every organisation having similar identification requirements, you end up being stuck in a limbo land where services are not available.

Of course the reason we telecom nomads want to get a local SIM card or sign up for service in every country we visit is because the roaming charges are so extortionist. The situation seems to be getting better via some of the big roaming alliances, which are now, finally, taking into account data services. That said, you'd still want to have deep pockets or a corporate sugar daddy if you're a regular data user.

For example, the Bridge Mobile Alliance -- which counts as its members SingTel Optus (Australia), Airtel (India), AIS (Thailand), CSL (Hong Kong), CTM (Macau), Globe Telecom (Philippines), Maxis (Malaysia), SK Telecom (Korea), SingTel Mobile (Singapore), Taiwan Mobile (Taiwan) and Telkomsel (Indonesia) -- is expected to charge US$30 per month for roaming across the member networks, but it's capped at 15MB. Go over that (which is not hard to imagine doing) and you're back to the uncertainty of not knowing what you're spending and bracing for the shock once you get your bill.

The other major regional alliance is Conexus, whose seven members are Far EasTone Telecommunications in Taiwan, Hutchison Telecommunications (Hong Kong), PT Indosat in Indonesia, KT Freetel in South Korea, NTT DoCoMo in Japan, Smart Communications in the Philippines and StarHub in Singapore. It's deal sounds better -- if it weren't for the fine print. This year Conexus will be offering flat rate data via a daily-rate plan. So if you're in, say, Singapore for three days you just pay the daily flat rate for three days. That's assuming you know what the flat rate is. As the Conexus media release notes, details of the flat-rate data-roaming tariff vary among member operators and are subject to each operator's final discretion. In addition, some members will provide a flat rate plan with a pre-set ceiling in data usage. In other words, you still won't know what your bill will end up looking like at the end of the month.

What would be useful is a web portal dedicated to telecom nomads in the Asia Pacific that has practical advice on getting the best available communications at an affordable price. One global site that I came across is, which conveniently had an entry on "Nomading the Mae Hong Song Loop" in Thailand when I checked it. However, it was more of a travel article than anything useful for the digital nomad, and aside from one Wi-Fi hotspot recommendation there was nothing about getting connected in the North of Thailand.

Elsewhere on the NuNomad site there was some general information on setting up a mobile office but nothing specific for Asia Pacific. What's needed, then, is some practical advise on how to get connected in each country. And of course what's needed even more are affordable rates for getting connected while on the road and some flexible sign-up options for those of us that quite often have no fixed address. -- Geoff Long