UPDATE | The Bridge AsiaRoam Data SIM package is being withdrawn as of December 31, 2012 – see our story here for more details.
PREVIOUS | Last week, we detailed Tru's new mobile network that spans three countries, doing away with global roaming fees altogether.
This week, there's more good news for travellers sick of facing big global roaming bills: a new SIM card is offering unlimited data roaming in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand or India. Optus is gearing up to launch a similar service, too.
The "Bridge AsiaRoam Data SIM" can be purchased online, and as long as you order three days in advance, you can collect it from the counter at Singapore's Changi Airport in the Singapore Visitors Centre in Terminal 1, 2 and 3, or at many dealers across Thailand and the Philippines.
It is an unbeatably affordable way to stay connected to the net while overseas: $US15 to buy the SIM card, which includes the first day's usage, then $US12 per day for unlimited data each day after that.
If you use it in a phone, rather than in a 3G modem or iPad, it does mean you have to swap your regular SIM card out, so people will no longer be able to call you -- and you won't be able to send or receive text messages.
However, you can use Skype or other internet calling apps on your smartphone to make calls over the mobile networks using your unlimited data allowance, and avoid global roaming phone call fees in the process.
Optus, which is a member of the Bridge Alliance consortium of Asian telcos, is also planning to offer the service to as a bolt-on for existing customers -- though it is not yet available.
The plan (which won't require a SIM swap) will be called "Bridge DataRoam Unlimited" and will cost $US10 for one day, $US27 for three days or $US40 for five days.
Global roaming Optus customers won't automatically get the plans - they will need to contact customer service and request them to be added to their account, otherwise they'll pay standard global roaming rates.
Although the plans have already been added to Optus' internal billing system, customer service operators are not yet permitted to add them to mobile phone accounts.
Bridge Alliance has announced Optus will definitely be offering the plans, but the telco is yet to respond to Australian Business Traveller's questions on when exactly this will be.
What you need to know about AsiaRoam before you buy...
As with any "unlimited!!" product, there are a few things you need to be aware of with the Bridge AsiaRoam Data SIM:
It won't work in a BlackBerry -- at least, you won't get BlackBerry emails through it, as your BlackBerry plan is tied to your local carrier's SIM card. The Optus bolt-on unlimited data roaming plan will, however, work in a BlackBerry, as it uses the existing Optus SIM card.
Of course, there's the good old 'fair use policy' that allows Bridge Alliance to terminate the service if you use 'too much' data. In Australia, this would be a legally shaky bit of fine print, as the service is clearly marketed as "unlimited", but the SIM card is issued by a Singapore-based company, where Australian laws do not apply.
The other catch is that the Bridge AsiaRoam Data SIM does not allow you to use data in two countries in the same day -- if you buy three days' worth of usage for $36 while in Singapore, for example, those days will only provide unlimited usage in Singapore, not any other country. This could be a problem for a business traveller flying from Singapore to Malaysia in the same day, for example.
You will also need to avoid using the SIM card for anything that might be considered 'immoral'. In the terms and conditions of the SIM card, Bridge Alliance reserves the right to terminate the service if you use it for "illegal or immoral purposes".
The most important thing you need to know about the SIM card is that you must select the correct network in each country to get the free and unlimited 3G data, and change your phone's APN to "bridge".
The networks are:
- Singapore: SingTel
- Malaysia: Maxis
- Indonesia: Telkomsel
- Philippines: Globe
- Thailand: AIS
- India: Airtel
The end of global roaming?
While data on mobile networks is now thoroughly affordable within Australia (example: Telstra's new $49 iPhone plan with 2GB Next G data), global roaming has been a creaking trojan horse of convenience for travellers wanting to keep using the internet functions on smartphones while travelling.
With standard rates of $10-$20 per MB, telcos routinely bill travellers hundreds, or thousands, of dollars in global roaming data fees to unsuspecting travellers (or even travellers who were aware of the costs, but did not know how much data their smartphone used).
Rising usage of smartphones with good web browsers and always-connected apps has increased sharply, with a commensurate rise in complaints from people facing shockingly large phone bills upon their return from a trip: 80% more in 2010 than the year before, according to the Telecommunications Ombudsman.
However, some telcos are starting to create an opportunity out of the problem: rather than ripping off their customers blindly, they're providing more affordable data roaming options, like the AsiaRoam SIM.
A new mobile network, Tru, is also the first network that spans three countries, providing local customer rates with one SIM card that works in the USA, UK and Australia. Although the data rates aren't as cheap as plans in Australia ($15 for 100MB in the UK, or $35 per 100MB in the USA), the prices are a small fraction of normal global roaming rates.
Vodafone and Telstra, who don't offer anything like Tru or Bridge's ultra-cheap roaming data are likely examining what they can do to stay competitive for international travellers who need to stay connected to the internet on their smartphone.
Vodafone is in the best position to fight back, as there are many Vodafone networks around the world that could participate in a cut price global roaming deal. However, Telstra does not belong to any larger consortium of networks, which may be a barrier to devising a better deal quickly.