Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Waiting for Pan-European Cellular Networks

I speak little but travel a lot. This is why I am often upset with the way mobile service works in Europe. In particular, the cross-border talks tend to be quite expensive. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is not just me -- during a trip on the Tallinn-Helsinki ferry I noticed a surprisingly large number of people changing SIM cards in their cellphones. These are commuters who have two SIM-cards, one for each country. Swapping the SIM-card is not too big a problem although the ordinary mobiles are not made with ease of this operation in mind. But price difference is large enough to justify a small inconvenience.

By Luke Ford (http://www.lukeisback.com/images/photos/050215.htm) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
 The situation is slowly improving, largely due to the cap on roaming tariffs, set by EU-Commission in 2007. However, I feel the legal cap it is not about the core of the problem. Cheap roaming is nice, but why do we have to rely on roaming in Europe in the first place? Why don't we have Pan-European networks, uninterrupted single networks covering all the Europe? A large part of the current country-based networks are owned by just a few large telecoms anyway, such as Vodafone and TeliaSonera. Why should one roam between the same operator's two networks, located next to each other? Cannot these two networks just be merged?

From the technical point of view, I cannot imagine there will be many obstacles. True, the related data processing may be somewhat more demanding, but roaming is complex as well. Perhaps there are some sort of distance-related expenses which keep the minute price for calls between Helsinki and Lisbon above that of between Bratislava and Vienna. However, I don't see any reason why should calls to neighboring countries be any more expensive than "domestic" calls, especially if it is about small states like in Scandinavia or Baltics.

What is the reason that a single telecom does not operate a single network across Europe? I bet this is linked to the fact that radio frequencies is "owned" and managed by member states and not by EU. Can anyone enlighten me here?

Anyway, this is an example how recent technological progress creates new border barriers.