T-Mobile expands roaming to Europe, Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA): T-Mobile's US hotspot division announced today that it has agreed to let its members roam to six other carriers' networks worldwide, including Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Australia. They reiterated an announcement snuck into a press release about British Telecom (BT) roaming on Oct. 21 that T-Mobile's international hotspot would also be part of this roaming arrangement. The total hotspots in this roaming network is nearly 12,000.
The WBA has been quiet for nearly a year, and Pete Thompson, T-Mobile HotSpot's director of marketing, said in an interview that the group has been developing the technical infrastructure to handle this worldwide, cross-system roaming. Part of the complexity is that "each carrier has the freedom and flexibility to set the retail roaming rate independent of each other," Thompson said.
During this quarter, T-Mobile HotSpot subscribers will pay no fees to use T-Mobile international, BT, Telecom Italia, Maxis (Malaysia), NTT (Japan), StarHub (Singapore), and Telstra (Australia) hotspots. Thompson said that the company will watch usage and gauge feedback to decide on the ultimate pricing. Each partner in the roaming agreement is purchasing capacity on the other networks at a wholesale rate.
Thompson said no pricing decisions had been set, but that it was likely prices would be consistent across a geographic area rather than varying by provider. T-Mobile HotSpot subscribers get the benefit of a single login, a single bill, and the negotiated rate. Recent analysts' reports have shown hotspot costs for single sessions range from moderately high to exorbitant in most locations outside the U.S.
The press release for this announcement noted that T-Mobile's Wi-Fi customers travel internationally an average of three times per year, but Thompson noted that a smaller subset travels outside the U.S. once a month, and that international roaming has been a top request in their survey of existing customers. "We think it's going to drive a lot of demand and satisfaction," he said.
Thompson noted the extraordinary fact that free roaming has been in effect between T-Mobile U.S. and Europe for two months and generated tens of thousands of roaming sessions--with no publicity. "We expect that to expand quite significantly over the next few months," Thompson said.
While quality of service and security is part of the expectation for all WBA members, Thompson said, 802.1X authentication is not yet a required element, even as an optional item. However, "We are encouraging the other carriers given the feedback we've gotten from enterprises in the U.S."
T-Mobile continues to see a strong connection between its $20 per month unlimited usage plan (with a one-year commitment and early cancellation penalty) and T-Mobile voice cell users. Thompson said 35 percent of existing hotspot subscribers are voice customers of T-Mobile, and that a staggering 60 percent of new Wi-Fi subscribers are existing or new voice customers.
T-Mobile was criticized since its acquisition of the assets of bankrupt MobileStar in early 2002 over deploying Wi-Fi when its voice business lagged. This reporter and a handful of other analysts noted that T-Mobile was gaining enormous marketing exposure as part of their arrangements with premium brands like Starbucks and Borders.
The addition of a cheaper Wi-Fi plan early last year for T-Mobile voice subscribers was certainly one of the steps that brought voice and Wi-Fi closer together, as is T-Mobile's package of unlimited Wi-Fi, unlimited GPRS, and voice minutes on a single bill.
Adding international roaming with negotiated tariffs should allow T-Mobile to extend its reach to more high-end voice customers even further--but it does take some of pressure off the company to open its domestic U.S. network to unlimited, no-fee roaming from other partners.