For a lot of companies, just a few users working or traveling overseas can rack up the bulk of cellular spending, for both voice and, increasingly, data.
And there are no simple or easy solutions to change that, says Phillip Redman, research vice president for network services and infrastructure at Gartner.
Per minute costs for voice in the United States average about 9 cents per minute, he says. Outside the United States, it jumps by at least a factor of 10, to $1 to $5 per minute. "Many users don't know this," he says. That's because their bills go straight to corporate accounting.
Many users don't realize they're charged even if they don't answer a call. Time zone differences might have you sleeping while others are calling you. If your phone is on, the calls go into voice mail, and result in billed minutes. If you're overseas, and join a conference call, the bill for an hour can easily cost you $200. "After a week, bills can be $3,000 to $5,000 or more," he says.
[For an in-depth analysis, see NW Wireless Alert Editor Joanie Wexler's recent analysis on the need for global wireless expense management.]
Cellular data services have "kind of snuck up on people," Redman says. Cellular radios on cards and USB dongles make it deceptively easy to access and download large amounts of data, and run up substantial charges. Ad hoc charges, without a plan, are especially costly, often running in the area of $6 per megabyte, Redman says.
Carriers do offer separate overseas data plans, but often at $200 to $250 per month they are four to five times more expensive than domestic wireless data offerings, and typically carry a limit, such as 250MB a month. "You can easily exceed that in a few days," Redman says. "I easily do 150 megs per day."
"There are no great solutions for reducing costs, beyond reducing the number of users who travel, reducing the minutes used, and making users aware of the costs," Redman wrote in "Best Practices for Managing Mobile Voice and Data," a report issued in June.
Redman recommends an enterprise audit to lay bare the impact of international calling and roaming. You can use those numbers to make employees more aware of costs, and change their cellular behavior: keep calls short; use lower-cost texting and e-mail as alternatives; and use a wireline desk phone at an overseas office when possible.
You can use the same numbers to negotiate with carriers, especially for particular countries where your employees do a lot of traveling. Redman says you can reap discounts of 30% to 40% in many cases.
There are technology aids. For example, if you have a GSM phone, you can replace your domestic SIM card with one for Italy or Japan, for example, making in effect a local call. That works for you making calls, Redman notes, but people calling you have to remember and use different phone numbers, one for each SIM. And if you plug in a French SIM, take the train to Spain and forget to change it, you're racking up expensive roaming charges again. For the enterprise, there are costs and burdens in administering, coordinating, provisioning and training when using multiple SIMs for each traveler.
"VPN Dialing" is a service offered by some carriers: it puts users in closed groups, and calls between group members are at a negotiated rate, regardless of which mobile network they use, whether they're traveling, or calling outside their home country.
Laptop-based softphones and VoIP clients, and the use of Wi-Fi networks, either public hotspots or branch office WLANs, are also alternatives, though each has drawbacks.
For wireless data, Redmond recommends prohibiting the use of cellular data overseas. Don't use Wi-Fi services priced daily or hourly: costs mount quickly. Use smartphones for e-mail and texting. Check out what plans carriers offer for various data services for remote and traveling workers. One of the best options: services from "managed network service providers" like iPass and Fiberlink. They offer a flat rate, unlimited international data use, and on-board client code helps secure the laptop or device, and enforce a range of enterprise policies.
Emerging solutions from vendors like Agito and DiVitas will tie cellular/Wi-Fi smartphones into enterprise PBXs, shifting calls to Wi-Fi networks and making use of landlines for international calls.