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Here, There And Everywhere?

By Harriet Meyers

Not yet, but for cdmaOne roaming, times are changing. Competition from other technologies, growing demand-especially from visitors to the US-and technology breakthroughs mean that more and more cdmaOne carriers now feel they must embrace international roaming. Harriet Meyers

Approximately 440 million people a year leave their home countries to travel internationally. That number is expected to grow at an average rate of 5.5 percent each year up to the year 2002, predicts the International Air Transport Association. And while these international travelers may be willing to change their watches and their currency, they are less and less willing to change their telephone numbers.

Wireless penetration continues to grow rapidly, with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association estimating worldwide penetration of 200 million by the end of this year. In some countries around the globe, wireless is almost replacing wireline service.

Is the demand for international roaming increasing, as well? "Absolutely," says Bill Gerhardt, solutions manager for GTE Telecommunications Services Incorporated (GTE TSI) roaming facilities group. "Our numbers show a growth in demand that doubles year after year."

Market profile
At the same time, the market profile for wireless phones and services is changing. Previously, the market experienced the 'early adapter' stage; this involved users who were likely to be corporate travelers and not tremendously price-sensitive, so long as their needs were met. Today smaller business travelers, non-profit organizations and government administrators are beginning to demand international service at reasonable rates.

"During the next five to seven years, we will see this market change tremendously," says Terry Yen, Asia Pacific program director and leader of the international roaming team for the CDMA Development Group (CDG). "Not only high-end users, but many well-informed consumers will demand the ability to have total access-even when they are on holiday."

In some areas of the world, the demand for international roaming is higher than in others. In Europe, Asia and Latin America, the need is especially high as people frequently cross country boundaries, sometimes daily. "In my region, the economic ports of entry such as Hong Kong and Singapore, are driving the demand for international roaming," says Yen. "It already makes economic sense."

According to Yen, if a traveler checks into a hotel in Hong Kong and makes a call from the phone in the room, the charge will be anywhere from four to five dollars a minute. And if the caller is transferring data, the potential cost is quite high. It is usually less expensive for the visitor to call from a cell phone, even from the hotel.

"The trend today is for more international players to come to North America to seek roaming agreements," adds Gerhardt. "Foreign carriers are interested, and they want to do it tomorrow-not some time in the future."

Most people today still buy wireless service for the ability it gives them to be reached, even when they travel. "It is quite logical that our customers would ask: 'Why doesn't my phone work in London?'" says Gary Drouillard, roaming manager for ICO Global Communications. "We must meet our customers' needs."

Niche market
He continues: "Many carriers in North America still regard international roaming as a small, niche market. They are busy using their resources to meet domestic demands and are overwhelmed by the rapid introduction of PCS carriers in the market."

"These short-term obstacles are preventing them from acknowledging the demand for global service. But the market is requiring them to refocus, and to answer the question: 'What does it take to offer our customers the world?'"

In fact, there is increasing evidence that worldwide coverage is a differentiator. When international travelers pack their travel alarm clocks, laptops and credit cards, they also expect to pack their wireless telephones. And if they are unable to pack one carrier-provided phone, they are very likely to turn to a different carrier.

As technology, call quality and domestic coverage even out from carrier to carrier, globalization is becoming a service that can differentiate one competitor from another.

"The crux of the international roaming issue for CDMA companies is-do you want to protect your investment in CDMA infrastructure by responding to the current and growing customer demands for global service, or do you want your CDMA gear returned because GSM has taken over international roaming?" says Drouillard.

The majority of wireless carriers do not promote international roaming to consumers today although Yen says: "I've seen the flip side of that in Asia". "Last year Singapore Telecommunications featured an advertisement which included the U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty, saying: 'We're the only carrier that can take you there.'"

According to Gerhardt, GTE TSI creates international roaming services on behalf of carriers, and it is up to the carriers to promote the service to their subscribers. "I see them just beginning to be more aggressive in promoting it," he says. "They need to hold on to their top-tier roamers, or the competition will get them."

Yen believes that international roaming is all about coverage. As CDMA coverage expands in Asia, Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere, inter-country roaming will be easier to provide.

But competition is already hotting up. Omnipoint Communications is ready to sell a multi-frequency handset capable of operating in more than 100 countries where it has roaming agreements. The phone operates on the GSM 900 and 1900 frequencies-one used mostly in Europe, Asia and Africa, the other in North America.

Competition is coming from quarters outside the wireless industry, as well. Some international travelers are satisfying their need for travel phones by renting them from travel service agencies. The World Travel Specialist Group delivers a wireless telephone to a traveler's door by courier and rents it by the day or by the month. The phone works in more than 87 countries and can be hooked up to a laptop computer.

Satellite operators, such as Iridium World Communications, also plan to provide communications service in every nook and cranny of the globe. Iridium began offering commercial telephone, pager and other communications services through a system of low-orbit satellites on Nov. 1, 1998.
"The typical customers do not really care whether they get their service via satellite or antenna," says Drouillard. "Customers just want the assurance of keeping in touch, wherever they are."

"High-end users, who tend to be the customers who travel internationally, are the bread and butter of the wireless carrier's business," adds Yen. " If those users want international roaming, and we don't give it to them, they will go somewhere else to find it."

At last, however, it seems the roadblocks are coming down. The CDG, GTE TSI and CIBERNET offered CDMA operators a one-stop solution to international roaming problems for the first time last year: cdmaConnect.

"This was one of the first endeavors which provides a total package to enable carriers to offer international roaming, and the response has been wonderful," says Gerhardt.

The purpose of cdmaConnect is to provide the necessary process, structure and solutions for roaming service provisioning. This includes a standardinter-carrier roaming agreement, data clearing, financial settlement, billing standards, call validation and delivery, fraud management and connectivity. The objective is to enable operators to be successful in intensely competitive business environments.

At the CDMA conference in Australia on March 15 and 16, a number of the roadblocks which challenge carriers when they want to provide seamless roaming will be discussed.

"If you knock on the door of a carrier, for example a company from Argentina that wants to bring its customers to North America, there are a number of key issues it will mention," says Drouillard.

Billing and record keeping issues "One of the major issues we face today is the human resource drain and administrative cost involved with keeping track of every line range of every carrier that might have a customer roaming in our area," says Yen. "There's not enough bang for the buck to make the North American carriers want to do it."

"Many North American carriers don't sense the need in their customers to go to Latin America or Asia Pacific yet," says Drouillard. "But customers from those areas already want to come to North America."

When the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) numbering plan was set up, it was not anticipated that there might be a need to differentiate cellular phone numbers from different providers. To allow subscribers to roam, every carrier has to identify who 'owns' the customer, where to go to confirm that the customer is valid and who to bill. This requires every carrier to continuously update its internal switch database tables with its own and any roaming partners' mobile identifier changes. And as roaming expands internationally, this is a complicated, time-consuming, expensive and error-prone task.

So how do we keep up with the burgeoning growth in the number of wireless roamers? Korea has in the region of 15 million wireless customers. Do North American carriers need to stay up-to-date on every line range in the switch on the off-chance that someone from Korea will show up?
The solution, according to Yen and Drouillard, is a central clearing-house that will keep track of all line ranges, identify callers and bill the appropriate carrier.

"If a carrier from Argentina wants to enable its customers to roam in North America, the North American carriers can sell that Argentinian carrier inbound minutes, but let a central service do the record-keeping and handle the billing," says Drouillard. "We must create a simple solution to open up the network."

Numbering issues When North America developed its numbering plan, the codes were assigned to wireline phones. No provisions were made to keep the same phone numbers from being used in other countries. It did not occur to anyone that some day people from Australia would arrive in North America with phones using some of the same telephone numbers-and that is exactly what has happened.

Carriers are motivated to solve this problem quickly, and much progress has been made during the past year. The International Forum for AMPS Standard Technology (IFAST) has been working on ways to avoid number duplication. The participating carriers are coordinating the assignment of International Roaming Mobility Identification Numbers (MINs) which do not conflict with existing area codes in North America.

Drouillard also suggests that local number portability may offer a solution to this problem. Once local number portability is implemented, there will be a separation of the mobile directory number which people call, and the mobile identity number which is used for routing. The same central system or clearing-house which keeps track of line changes and billing could be expanded to keep track of roaming users who aren't in the current switch tables, and supply the routing information to the carriers.

Handset issues "Either we will resolve our roaming problems, or we will develop an enlightened phone which can figure out which network it is on," says Drouillard.

"Manufacturers now recognize the need to satisfy their customer base's desire to provide seamless roaming," adds Gerhardt. "We're seeing dual-band handsets and dual-mode phones being developed and offered at reasonable prices."

The availability of multi-mode phones is expanding rapidly. Dual-band/dual-mode PCS CDMA/AMPS phones and dual-mode cellular CDMA/AMPS phones are available today.

"The bottom line is that these handsets make the carrier's job easier-providing seamless global roaming with one phone," says Gerhardt.
The consensus from those who study international roaming is that there is a huge, untapped market with fantastic potential.

"What U.S. players will come to realize is the potential revenue they have in the increasing number of incoming roamers," says Yen. "The visited network stands to make money. And the U.S. is the most visited destination."

"The revenue involved today is centered on the carrier's short-term need to retain customers," says Gerhardt. "But as the number of international roamers grows and the penetration of wireless increases, the long-term revenue opportunities also increase."

There is also potential revenue in the international transfer of data. "This is not a market that people really understand well," says Drouillard. "But as a spin-off from the Internet, the demand may be greater than any of us anticipate."

"At a time like this, it is critical for CDMA providers to address the issues surrounding international roaming more elegantly," stresses Drouillard. "With demand on the rise and competition from other technologies a reality, for CDMA's sake, we need to solve the international roaming issues now."

"Based on subscriber growth and customer demand over the last couple of years and the forecasted increase in subscribers as well as the increase in international travel-the potential for international roaming is wonderful," concludes Gerhardt. "More minutes of use more customers, more competition, lower rates and greater market awareness-these are the trends we will see."