OPINION | An interesting article popped up in Australian Business Traveller's news feed this afternoon -- Indonesian telco XL is offering flat-fee global roaming for BlackBerry customers in 11 countries, including Australia.
For customers travelling to Australia, it has struck a deal with Telstra to provide the unlimited global roaming data for a fixed daily fee to XL customers of US$6 (A$5.57).
Unfortunately, at this time, the deal doesn't go the other way -- Telstra customers (and indeed, customers of any Australian telco) will still pay the big bucks when they take their BlackBerry roaming.
However, there is no doubt that pressure is building on telcos locally to provide more reasonably priced global roaming solutions than they have been, as the travelling public comes to rely on smartphone connectivity wherever they are.
The news points to the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the BlackBerry.
First, the weakness: you cannot swap the SIM card of a BlackBerry for a cheap prepaid one at your destination. This is because the BlackBerry creates an encrypted link between you and your home telco, and all data flows through that. The BlackBerry service is designed so that your handset can't create the encrypted link if you swap the SIM card over.
As a result, if you're a BlackBerry user, you are forced to use global roaming when you travel (see footnote below).
This is part of BlackBerry's mantra about security not being optional; it's a policy designed primarily for customers using corporate BlackBerrys, ensuring that all communication on the BlackBerry is done via a strongly encrypted link back to the company.
Unfortunately, for users of the personal BlackBerry service sold directly to consumers, this same policy is enforced -- but the link is back to your home telco. It's an awkward imposition, especially as people are starting to wise-up to the benefits of buying a prepaid SIM card at their destination, rather than paying the extortionate fees associated with global roaming.
Now the strength: One of the key features of the BlackBerry service that many people don't even know about is that all data usage is heavily compressed before it's sent your handset.
For example, rather than a whole plain text email being sent to your BlackBerry, it is effectively 'zip compressed' on the BlackBerry server and sent to the phone. In fact, not even the whole email is sent -- only the first page of it. So, if it's a spam email and you delete it without scrolling through it, your phone hasn't even had to download that part of the email.
Likewise, if someone sends you 10MB of photo attachments, the BlackBerry service only sends downsized versions of the pictures to your phone -- large enough to view clearly on the BlackBerry screen, but more likely to measure only 0.25MB rather than the original 10MB. (And then, if you forward the message to someone else, instead of downloading the whole 10MB and sending it again from your BlackBerry, the BlackBerry service does it all behind the scenes, without your BlackBerry having to download anything at all.)
Put simply, there is no phone on the market that is more miserly with data than BlackBerry -- and this is a secret that IT managers have relied on for years to keep corporate global roaming costs down.
The reason telcos can consider offering flat-fee global roaming plans for BlackBerry is the same reason they offer unlimited data packages domestically for BlackBerry -- the stats show that these phones use very little data, compared to data-sucking iPhone and Android handsets.
iPhone is at the other end of the spectrum from BlackBerry when it comes to data consumption -- America's largest telco, AT&T, admitted recently during its acquisition of smaller telco T-Mobile, that the iPhone had put an unbearable load on its network, causing drop-outs and speed issues across the country.
Don't expect to see an unlimited roaming deal for the iPhone any time soon. (If you are roaming with an iPhone, though, be sure to check out our latest articles on the best ways to reduce data roaming costs.)
However, with Optus already set to offer unlimited data roaming in a select number of Asia Pacific countries in the near future, there's a real chance Australian telcos might offer worldwide flat-rate data roaming for BlackBerry users soon.
Footnote: There are some small exceptions to the "BlackBerry users must use global roaming" rule. The Tru SIM that we wrote about recently (the mobile network that spans the USA, UK and Australia, and offers extremely low rates) will soon offer BlackBerry service via its SIMs. However you'll have to port your primary phone number over to them, and use their SIM card full-time for a minimum contract period. It won't be possible to just use the Tru SIM with your BlackBerry for a month and then toss it in the bottom drawer.