Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Can I lower my international mobile charges?
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Fed Up With This Foreign Policy
I've had some huge mobile phone bills recently after making calls from abroad. Will the prices ever come down, and does technology offer any way around the problem?

The nail-biting anticipation of a phone bill can form an unpleasant coda to a holiday. "I made one call home from the Alps," writes Tony Morgan in a message similar to many received this week, "and it cost £15 for two minutes. Never again." The charges levied for both incoming and outgoing calls and text messages can mount up quickly, and data rates can be crippling - 10 months ago a British businessman was charged £769 for downloading less than 10MB of data to his phone while in Germany.

Any networks you roam on to while you're abroad will charge your home network a wholesale price for using your mobile phone. You are then recharged this sum on your bill, along with a suitable mark-up. After much investigation, the European Commission concluded that these wholesale prices bear little relation to the cost of actually providing the service. They have also criticised the complex tables of call charges, hidden set-up costs, connection fees and per-minute charging which confuse the consumer. Reader Maggie Hobbs writes: "If phones displayed the cost of each call as it was being made, there'd be no more surprise bills, and we could make educated decisions about making calls while abroad."

New EC regulations planned for 2007 will reduce the cost of using your phone in the EU by up to 70 per cent, with calls made back to UK landlines charged at a maximum of €0.49 per minute. In the meantime, the mobile networks are slowly introducing better-value roaming packages - although they claim it's not in response to the impending regulations - and also implementing what's known as "traffic steering", which ensures that your phone will automatically connect to a favoured network with whom they've negotiated a lower wholesale price.

While the authorities and the networks argue over fair pricing structures, the internet provides an alternative. VOIP - or internet telephony - is a cheap solution if you're equipped with a computer in a hotel with a broadband connection; gizmoproject.com is recommended by reader Jack Thomas for facilitating free calls to UK landlines from anywhere in the world. If it's too much hassle to get your laptop through airport security, companies such as Mobiboo are producing mobile handsets that also make cheap calls via wireless internet connections. These phones aren't truly mobile, as you'll need to loiter within a few feet of a wireless access point, but they are set to become an increasingly useful alternative as wireless broadband becomes more widespread.