Friday, August 29, 2008

USA - roaming bill shock

A cellphone bill roams to the stratosphere

Santa Monica resident Aurelie Foucaut traveled last month to Paris with her two kids. During a brief stopover in Montreal, she made six calls on her BlackBerry to friends and family members, each lasting less than three minutes.

Foucaut's wireless bill from T-Mobile arrived a few weeks ago. It included $59.77 in ordinary usage charges. It also included a $2,367.40 "data service roaming charge" for nearly 158 megabytes' worth of Internet access while in Montreal -- the equivalent of downloading about 80 novels.

"How is this possible?" Foucaut, 41, wanted to know. "I never go on the Internet with my phone. I don't download into my BlackBerry. I don't even know how to do it."

Foucaut's experience illustrates the ease with which extra charges can be tacked onto people's wireless bills when they travel.

It also shows how tough it can be to get those charges erased, or at the very least documented by your wireless provider, even though most telecom companies can detail exactly what's passing over their networks at any particular moment.

Foucaut's husband, Thierry, tried to work with T-Mobile to resolve the situation. He didn't get very far.

"It's very frustrating," he told me. "We just want them to provide some proof that the data service was provided, since we know it never happened. But they won't give us anything."

Thierry Foucaut, 43, works as chief operating officer for a Los Angeles soft-drink company and understands a thing or two about customer service. He said that when he first called T-Mobile, a service rep initially apologized for any misunderstanding and said she'd look into the matter.

"She came back on the line five minutes later and said the charge was valid," Foucaut recalled.

He asked to speak with a supervisor, who also insisted that the charge was valid. If that was the case, Foucaut responded, please produce some record of the data transfer having occurred.

"They sent me a copy of my July bill," he said. "This was completely irrelevant."

When he called T-Mobile again, he was told he'd have to take up the problem with a Canadian firm called Rogers Wireless, which handles T-Mobile's roaming requirements in the Great White North.

Foucaut said he called Rogers and was told to take it up with T-Mobile. He said the Rogers rep refused to even discuss the firm's operations.

Foucaut then complained to the Better Business Bureau, prompting an offer from T-Mobile last week to settle the disputed charge for $1,726.30. Foucaut replied that he'd be happy to pay as soon as T-Mobile provided proof of the data transfer to his wife's phone.

He said he received a letter from the company last weekend reiterating that the charge was valid but offering no further information. "I just don't think I'm being heard by T-Mobile," Foucaut told me.

Could the data transfer have happened? Apparently so, under certain circumstances.

No one at Rogers Wireless returned my calls for comment. But a technician at the Canadian company said the speed of any data transfer at the Montreal airport would depend on how close a wireless customer was to a cell tower and how many other people were using the network.

He said Rogers' network handles average wireless speeds of about 1.5 megabytes per second. At that rate, it would take less than two minutes to download 158 megabytes.

Eric Westrom, manager of network services at the Folsom, Calif., telecom consulting firm Miles Consulting Corp., said it's not unheard of for more than 150 megabytes to be downloaded to a BlackBerry.

But he said this would typically come in the form of a multimedia program -- an unusually large video or audio file -- attached to an e-mail. A five-minute video from YouTube might account for 10 megabytes.

Aurelie Foucaut said that not only does she never send or receive large files with her e-mail, but her e-mail access wasn't even working the day she was traveling. "I received no e-mail," she said.

At my request, T-Mobile took a closer look at the Foucauts' situation. I finally heard back from Tom Harlin, a company spokesman.

"T-Mobile feels the charges are indeed valid," he said.

I asked how the company reached that conclusion -- and why it had failed to provide any supporting evidence to the Foucauts. Harlin said he'd have to get back to me on that.

He wanted customers to know, though, that they can read up on roaming charges by visiting and typing "international" in the search box. Then click on the link for "WorldClass International Services." Then click on the link for "T-Mobile international roaming."

I did this and discovered that T-Mobile charges $10.24 per megabyte for data transmissions in Canada. So why were the Foucauts billed $15 per megabyte and not $10.24?

Harlin said he'd have to get back to me on that as well.

He called late Tuesday to report that he didn't have anything to report. He said he couldn't explain why the Foucauts were being billed at the higher rate.

Harlin also said he couldn't explain how 158 megabytes of data traveled to or from Aurelie Foucaut's BlackBerry, except that "we're confident the data did move across our network."

"The case is under review," he said. "We'll try to reach a resolution that's suitable for both of us."

Does that mean the data service roaming charge could be dropped?

"There's a chance, yes," Harlin replied.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Foucaut's soft-drink company has 60 phone lines and they're all hooked up to T-Mobile's network. Foucaut said he's thinking maybe it's time to try another provider.

Maybe then T-Mobile would listen.

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