Cycling

European Roaming… In Reading, Berkshire

Cast your minds back to September 2010. I had just returned to the UK from my cycle to Italy and I tentatively checked my online mobile phone account with Orange. I’d planned ahead and made sure that I had a quota of data available for use each day – enough for a few emails to update this website plus a few fairly low-grade pictures to the blog & twitter – but I knew that I had gone over the quota a few times during the five weeks of cycling so was expecting a largish bill. I signed in to my account and followed the required path to discover my ‘estimated usage since last bill‘ was £8,492. I remember the moment well and I think I may even have shed a tear. You can read the full story of the shameful way Orange gave me the impression that I had run up such a bill in the post I wrote at the time: Orange(s) & Lemons. My final bill turned out to be £90.71.

The sense of relief when I discovered the real amount was less than £100 was tangible. But it also made me angry that Orange had let me think there was a possibility that I might be paying off a large debt to them for many years into the future. I was also quite frustrated that they didn’t take my complaints seriously. By the time the real bill had arrived I’d worked out that my bill couldn’t possibly be nearly £10,000 but what about the other, less rational people out there who may have taken drastic measures as a result of seeing such a large ‘estimated usage‘ figure? I promised myself at the time that I would leave the Orange network at the first opportunity I could. I was only two months into a two-year contract back in September 2010 so there was not much I could do but now, just over two years later, my contract period is over and I am a free agent in the mobile phone market once again. What’s more, the new iPhone 5 has just been launched and ever the sucker for a new gadget, I want one!

Roaming charges have been in and out of the news for many years usually alongside headlines screaming ‘scandalous‘ or ‘rip off‘. But the influence of the European Commission has come to bear on the mobile phone companies of Europe and the prices are indeed coming down. Here’s an article from The Daily Telegraph to prove my point. Try not to mention this positive EU fact to a member of UKIP or the right-wing of the Conservative Party; they seem to prefer to give you erroneous tales of bent cucumbers being banned or hype up the fact that we are no longer allowed to buy things in pounds and ounces (without realising the fact that anyone who left school since 1975 is not actually capable of doing so anyway). This is good news for me as I plan my trip along the Eurovelo 8 from Athens to Cadiz next summer. But just how reasonable are the new, lower roaming charges? This morning I went to investigate…

Engaging in conversation with most employees of mobile phone shops can be as frustrating as it is amusing. They probably work on commission (especially on the insurance) and I never get the sense that I am been told the whole truth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they don’t lie through their gleaming teeth to get you to sign on the dotted line (although some probably do), but they have an objective in mind and you and me, the ordinary punters in the street are sitting on the bullseye of their monthly target graph. (OK, technically not possible but you get my drift.) Carphone Warehouse was my first stop. I thought they would be able to give me a good, impartial overview as to which of the companies gave the best deals. Unfortunately the chap I spoke to was not a regular reader of The Telegraph and he proceeded to tell me just how expensive all the companies still were. Was all the talk of ‘reasonable’ charges just hype? I wandered up the street to the Orange shop out of curiosity rather than intention of renewing my contract with them; all the staff were busy and I stood, ignored for a few minutes. Perhaps I had already been black-listed for my complaints back in late 2010. Their new partners-in-misleading-online-information, T-Mobile were the next shop in the street so I went in and was greeted by a boy with a slicked back barnet and the beginnings of facial hair growth (shouldn’t he be at home doing his homework?). I mentioned roaming charges and he looked blank. Perhaps he hadn’t yet studied ‘Europe’ in his geography lessons back at school. I made my excuses and left.

I walked back down the street and past the O2 shop. Outside was a moderately-sized queue of people waiting patiently along the line of an impromptu rope barrier in the street. What looked like a bouncer stood at the head of the queue. Either O2 were now using their shops as pop-up high street nightclubs or the new iPhone was on sale for the first time. It was of course the latter. I didn’t want to queue so I continued walking.

The French (Orange) had failed me, the Germans (T-Mobile) had decided to employ a teenager who wasn’t even capable of failing me & the Spanish (o2) gave the impression of wanting to frisk me in the street before I entered their emporium, so what was left? The British of course in the guise of Vodafone. Now, I have history with the Newbury-based giant of the mobile phone world. I can’t remember why but I did have a frustrating year with them about ten years ago. I think it might have been the customer service availability but can’t quite be sure. Ten years is a long time in the mobile phone industry however (well, it’s a long time in any industry come to think of it) so I was willing to forgive and forget. I suppose that gives a little bit of hope for Orange in the year 2022.

Vodafone’s newly-refurbished outlet in the Oracle shopping centre in Reading doesn’t give the impression of being staffed by pubescent adolescents. In fact, they looked more like the ones who had made it to the penultimate stage of the Apple recruitment process to become a ‘genius’ only to fall at the last hurdle. Even their approach to the customers was very ‘Apple’; I was welcomed by a guy with a goaty beard (that alone should have got him the job in the Apple Store, no?) who tapped my first name into his hand-held console and within seconds it appeared on the overhead displays around the shop. ‘Andrew’ was in a queue behind ‘Nigel’, ‘Farzil’ & ‘Andy’ (you could have some fun with made-up names there) and the average waiting time was eight minutes. The only thing I could fault was their ability to work out the average waiting time as I had to hang around tapping the screens of random display phones to see what would happen for well under five minutes. (Perhaps that was the ultimate test down at the Apple recruitment centre.)

I sat with one of the assistants for a while and we chatted over options. I explained how I had already received the bad news about roaming charges from the guy in Carphone Warehouse and that I was expecting to have to pay through the nose for usage in summer 2013 as I cycled along the Mediterranean from Athens to Cadiz (she seemed impressed or was it the look of someone who did well in drama classes at school?). She proceeded to explain that they offer a service called ‘Euro Traveller‘ and that for £3 per day I would be able to use my phone as if I was back in the UK. OK, OK, come one… it covers calls and texts but I’m actually more interested in the roaming data usage rather than the calling and texting. Hit me with it! The sting in the tail of the sales pitch, ‘terms and conditions apply‘ etc… ‘No, it includes data.‘ No, no, you can’t be right. Data up to  what limit? 2mb a day (as I had paid for back in summer 2010)? ‘No, you’re full UK allowance on your contract.‘ We had already decided upon a suitable 2GB contract limit. She clearly hadn’t understood what I wanted. ‘The £3 roaming charge includes data usage up to your UK contract limit in most countries in Europe‘. Can you show me that written down somewhere? She went off and came back with a leaflet folded small so it could fit into your wallet. I opened it carefully almost as if it contained small diamonds. She seemed to be correct. ‘Heading over to Europe? If you’re on Vodafone pay monthly… opt in to Vodafone Euro Traveller. For just £3 a day, you’ll be free from unexpected bills when you use your mobile in our Europe Zone… that’s any inclusive minutes, mobile internet & texts that you currently receive in the UK…

I looked for the little asterisks linking the text to the get-out clauses at the foot of the piece of paper. They seemed to be absent. Mmm… The assistant was indeed telling the truth.

So, for £3 a day, I will be able to take my contract with me. This is a revelation to say the least. The countries I will be cycling through, with the exception of Montenegro are all on the list (yes, even Albania) and who knows, perhaps in the next ten months Montenegro will also have succumbed to Vodafone’s charms. I set the change of mobile phone provider process in motion there and then and, if all goes to plan I will have a new iPhone 5 with a contract that does indeed allow me to roam on a bike through Europe at will and not get stressed about the charges.

I called Orange to obtain my PAC code (required to transfer my current number to the new Vodafone account) and they played the usual game of trying to ask me why I was changing. ‘Can we try beat their offer?‘ ‘Have you looked into all the options?‘ No you can’t and no I haven’t. The folks at Orange made their error is giving me the impression I owed them £8,492 back in September 2010. The future is bright? The future is Orange? Well, not for me it isn’t. I’ve gone red*!

*…but I might be back in 2022 for the iPhone 10.

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