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.
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."
"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."
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.
"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."
"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.
"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
"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
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,"
"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."
"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."