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Crave Talk: Roaming phones still pile on the groans

The phone cops in Europe have finally got roaming tariffs in their sights, but the networks are fighting back. Here's what's wrong -- and how to tell them to get stuffed

We've all been there. All the money saved on a cheap weekend on the continent -- a tenner airfare, twenty quid a night hotel -- is wiped out in half an hour with one incoming call from mum on your mobile. For some reason, it's more expensive to run a £25 Nokia abroad than fly a $25m Boeing there in the first place.

The mobile phone network operators have never been able to explain this. It costs not a penny more to route data to Adelaide than it does to Acton, a principle that powers the whole Internet. Yet the networks still pretend 'long-distance' calls need gold-plated transoceanic cables and diamond-encrusted operators. To this end, they charge each other enormous amounts for accepting calls from out of country, then blame each other for having to do so.

If you fancy a laugh -- sardonic, humourless and resigned -- then check out the GSM Association's Best Roaming Prices Web site. By an amazing coincidence, most of the time all the operators in a particular country will charge exactly the same roaming rate for your operator. By an even more amazing coincidence, roaming between operators with the same name tends to cost more than the alternatives. They couldn't make it plainer if they wore white spats and carried a violin case.

European regulators have spotted this, and have been threatening to send in the G-men. In fact, they've said that they can see no reason for roaming rates at all -- calls should cost the same wherever you are and wherever you're calling. The network operators do have an answer for this: we're making so much money from roaming, they say, that if you stop us we'll have to charge everyone much more for everything.

This is real gangster logic -- what, you want me to go and mug old-age pensioners instead? But it looks as if the regulator might not call the networks' bluff: wholesale hacking of prices is out, a complex set of reductions phased in over time with no overall reform is in.

Yet if roaming rates for voice are bad -- which they are -- rates for data range from outrageous to frankly illegal. The best to date is Orange's £20 a megabyte, which prices the lengthier iTunes single at around a hundred quid. As Ed Williams, head of T-Mobile's business strategy, said when he was asked last week whether data tariffs were screwing his customers -- "Completely screw them. Yes."

Bear that in mind next time your mobile company tries to flog you music downloads, TV, video-conferencing or Web access on the move: you dare switch on outside Her Maj's Britannic Realm, and they'll be shipping your wallet back in a pine overcoat.

You can fight back. Buy a local pay as you go SIM when you get to your destination, and text the number to those few people who need to know. Use Skype from an Internet cafe: it's got voicemail now, so you don't need to be in to get a message -- and you can always set your mobile's voicemail to say "Text me if it's urgent."

And if you're with a bunch of mates and want to split up to go shopping or bar-hunting, get a set of PMR446 walkie-talkies. They're a tenner a pop these days, they're legal all over Europe, and most use ordinary mobile phone headsets so you don't look like a a bouncer, a policeman or a complete dork when you're using them. Of course, you might want to look like one of the above -- like a clipboard, a walkie-talkie gets you access to all sorts of areas -- in which case, bonus.

But don't, whatever you do, give the network operators one eurocent more than you absolutely have to. They will get dragged into the 21st century eventually -- even Al Capone got his -- but until then, don't take their call. -Rupert Goodwins