Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

Data roaming shock

Fido Roaming vidcapThere are some real cases of data roaming bill shock. A lot of people really don’t know that it can get really expensive, really fast if a smart phone connects to a foreign data network.

Many devices have settings to help avoid roaming bill shock.

One of the settings lets you disable the cellular radio; the other commonly found setting is to disable data roaming, but allow calls and text messages to come through. Both of these options will usually let you log in to WiFi hotspots at your hotel or coffee shops.

I actually think that devices should come pre-configured with data roaming disabled as the default setting.

For some reason, I am not feeling sympathetic to the latest story that was created by CBC’s Go Public. From the time I first heard about it, a number of questions ran through my mind.

CBC’s headline reads “Dad gets $22,000 data roaming ‘shock’ from Fido”.

In fact, there was no bill for $22,000. The kid used data that would have cost $22,000 if Rogers had not first adjusted the bill to reflect the prices that would have been charged if the parent had signed up for a discounted data plan. But that doesn’t attract eyeballs the same way.

The video clip that aired is introduced by an announcer who said:

A Burnaby man is going public tonight after getting a $22,000 phone bill.

That simply was not true. CBC was wrong. As it turns out, he never received a bill for $22,000. CBC knew that. In fact, CBC shows the bill in the video (the image reproduced here is from a freeze on the 1:08 mark of the CBC video). You can clearly see that the total bill, including regular monthly charges and tax comes to only $1400. That is a lot, but barely 5% of the headline.

From the bill, we can see that this is a family that was fully aware of possible data roaming charges. The bill shows a regular US data roaming subscription. In the story, the parent describes visiting the Apple store to find out how to avoid charges.

However, the 11 year-old son got a sunburn and was left in the hotel room with the family iPhone to play with. As the story goes, the kid turned on data roaming and spent 3 days watching YouTube videos.

Normally, a text message is sent to warn customers that welcomes the user to a foreign land and provides instructions on rates and how to manage roaming costs. For example, one of my phones recently received one that said:

Rogers TIP: You’re Roaming. Stay connected with an affordable and easy to use roaming offer. If you don’t already have one, simply click (no charge) to quickly view your options. Without a roaming offer, regular roaming rates are $3/min $0.75/txt $0.03/kB (+ taxes). FYI: Email, browsing, Visual Voicemail, MMS, IM, BBM & Apps use data. If you still require assistance please call Rogers free of charge at +1-514-734-7699

According to the article, no such message was received, although it is not known whether such an incoming message was deleted.

Contrary to the paragraph in the CBC story that claims “Currently, the only way for a customer to access data outside the country for less — through their carrier — is to buy a roaming package, before leaving”, you can subscribe to discounted data plans once you arrive in your destination.

The bill appears to reflect a substantial reduction in the charges that might otherwise have been incurred. We are told that the kid consumed 700MB of data over three days, two of which are on the current bill. From the vidcap of the bill, we can see that there is a line item for a 75 MB package plus overage charges for another 327 MB. That means that next months bill will have another 300 MB or so. This month’s data bill is $1200; next month, at the same rate, will be about $1000. It is a lot, but there is no bill for $22,000.

And contrary to the opening of the news story, there was no bill for $22,000. The author of the CBC story says that she isn’t responsible for the intro. In a tweet since removed, she wrote: “@CBCGoPublic: That was intro to story not written by me which aired hours ago. Story clearly stated $2200. I am done here.”

In fact, the story talks about $22,000 four times (plus the headline and the caption to the video) before you get to the 9th paragraph, where it states “Fido immediately said it would cut the bill to $2,200.” Cut the bill? There was no $22,000 bill. All evidence seems to be that the only bill that was sent was for $2200.

Just a sensational headline, under the banner of the national broadcaster, perhaps intended to influence CRTC members who are considering such matters as part of the Wireless Code of Conduct. It might have been interesting to hear if CBC asked the parents how they felt about leaving their child unattended in a Mexican hotel room for 3 days. Did CBC check the deleted messages folder to see if the warning text message was accidentally erased?

I am sympathetic to many cases of data roaming bill shock. This just isn’t one of them.

6 comments to Data roaming shock

  • Hi Mark,

    Always enjoy your blog. Wanted to expressly comment on how well you covered this story. Wouldn’t have seen it otherwise and really liked your presentation of the facts.


  • Thanks Joe. I appreciate the support.

  • Kathy Tomlinson

    Hi Mark,

    Several of the facts in this blog are wrong. I don’t want to engage with you anymore on this – that is why I blocked you on Twitter – however – you are doing exactly what you are criticizing the CBC for purportedly doing.

    You have not seen the documentation on this case and you have not talked to the customer so you do not know the whole story.

    For example, this family went to the California on their way to to Mexico, and the standard roaming message came then.

    That is just one example of many things you don’t know and why your assumptions are wrong.

    I am sure you can see the irony in all of this.

    I suggest before you say any more you should look at all the documentation and talk to the customer yourself.

    This is the last you will hear from me on this.

  • Kathy –

    I don’t know what you think I am doing that is in anyway “exactly what [I am] criticizing the CBC for purportedly doing.” I identified errors and misstatements that you broadcast nationally. At least one of those errors, you acknowledged – and only corrected after I posted in this piece.

    Recall, you tried to duck the flaw in the 14th paragraph. You said in a tweet ( on March 4 that it was a small point, despite the fact that it was significant enough to devote an entire paragraph. Thanks to this blog post, you corrected your story late on the afternoon (ET) of March 5.

    If there is information that we do not have, that is more a reflection on the story than the readers.

    As to your statement that a “standard roaming message” was received in California, are you aware that this would normally be received with each new carrier and country? In fact, often a single trip to California might have brought multiple messages as one roams from AT&T to T-Mobile etc. I suspect we will never hear if CBC looked at the deleted messages to find out if the Mexico message was deleted.

    The video clip intro clearly referred to a $22,000 bill – “A Burnaby man is going public tonight after getting a $22,000 phone bill.” Your tweet shrugged off responsibility for the misstatement, despite you being happy to have it appear next to your name on your online presence: “That was intro to story not written by me which aired hours ago. Story clearly stated $2200. I am done here.”

    As your online presence states “We hold powers that be accountable”. One would have hoped that you and CBC hold yourselves to be accountable as well.

  • Comment on “Father’s $22,000 cell phone bill: Is price-gouging or bad parenting to blame?”

    I would like to present my side of the story on the controversial issue of Canadian Cell Phone Roaming charges.

    In January, 2013, my wife and I were traveling with our young children (7 and 11) to Disneyland then to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a family holiday. I brought my iPhone to video our vacation, listen to music, use an English Spanish translator app and get on the hotel WIFI for free.

    I am paranoid of Roaming charges, the Apple Store and Fido representatives recommended turn on iPhone’s Airplane Mode, this effectively shuts off Cell Carrier connection.

    Our last night in Mexico, we received the only message from Fido: “Your roaming charges are excessively high. For security reasons, please contact Fido Customer Service.” The iPhone was shut down by Fido.

    During one day in Los Angeles. I signed up for Fido’s international roaming package because I was using my iPhone as a GPS map, while we were driving around Los Angeles. I know roaming charges are high, even their roaming packages are expensive compared to using a local carrier’s service on an unlocked smartphone.

    Throughout our two-week vacation, I warned my son to stay on airplane mode while he was playing his games. Throughout the first week, he did so. During our stay in Mexico, while I saw him using my phone, I repeatedly asked him; “Are you on airplane mode? Roaming charges are excessive”. He always replied “yes, Dad”. Up to this point, throughout his 11 years, my son has never lied or deceived me. He later told me “Dad I knew what I was doing was wrong… I thought the bill would be $20.00 -$30.00 and I would pay for it out of my allowance”

    Clearly, as it turns out, my 11-year-old son was using my iPhone to play games, disobeyed me, turned off the Airplane mode without my consent, and watched between 8- 12 hours of Youtube video’s over 3 days. I acknowledge my parental error; I am good parent and all who know me agree on this.

    My son never once received a warning that he was incurring Roaming charges. I have kept all messages from Fido on my phone as evidence of this. He was not informed the cost is approximately $1.00 / minute. Think he would continue, knowing what the total bill would be? My son is a good boy, in grade 6 and is proud that he has never been sent to the principle’s office and rarely gets in trouble.

    Fido told me we had a charge of $22,740.00, but don’t worry they will drop it to $2,274.00

    I believe the real issue is lack of transparency, excessive roaming charges and bill shock.

    In Canada Fido charges a total of $60.00 for this data time and in Mexico Telcel costs $20

    After 8 frustrating hours of phone calls and letters to Fido including their “Office of the President”, their offer is to drop the roaming charge from $2,274.00 to $874.00 to $500. after CBC Go Public’s expose then finally to my demand of $200. after Gillian Shaw of the Vancouver Sun questioned Fido about it. Why does my bill go down? I believe when this corporate misbehaviour is put in the spotlight it forces a company to do the fair thing.

    What will happen to the other customers who do not know how to fight their excessive, nonauthorized bill shock?

    Cell phone price gouging:

    Why did it take Fido 3 days to inform me that I have a potential bill from their Mexican cell phone provider of $22,000.00? My current Fido bill due March 28 is $2,666.03.

    After 8 hours of aggravation and stress why is their best offer of $500.00, when we never authorized this purchase in the 1st place? I cannot even fill up my car with gas without pre-authorizing the amount on my credit card? If a $2,2,00.00 purchase was made on my Visa, do you not think I would have to preauthorize it first?

    Why would they not have clear and understandable costs attached to the usage? Specifically: If you download a movie of 758 MB this could cost you up to $22,000?

    Their actions indicate they care nothing for their customers and everything about getting as much money as they can?

    If you Google “Canadian Roaming Charge Complaints” you will come up with 2.3 million entries. After reading some of the stories of customers who faced thousands of dollars in unauthorized roaming charges. I feel compelled to use my situation to bring these unfair business practices to public scrutiny, with the hope that we will see a positive change.

    This situation has caused considerable stress on my family, is time and energy consuming for me, however it is an injustice that requires my and other Canadians attention for positive change. It would be far easier for me and my family to pay the current Fido offer of $500.00 then to continue the fight on to Fido’s Ombudsman to get the $200.00 Roaming Cap charge. This is not about money; this is about fighting for a fair consumer Telecom policy.

    If Europe can place a cap on roaming charges, why can’t Canada?

    Since 1 July 2010, European operators must provide customers with the opportunity to determine in advance how much they want to spend before the service is disabled (“cut-off”).

    My position is that there should be a cap on roaming charges, CRTC is considering between $50-$200. After that point the customer must pre-authorize how much they can afford before proceeding.
    Hopefully CRTC will regulate and stop this despicable corporate scam

    Bad Parenting

    During non vacation time we have 3 screen free days and the remaining days we limit their screen time to 2 hours ie: a total screen time of 8 hours / week. The rest of the time they are playing with their friends outside, swimming, skiing, biking, reading and being normal kids.

    My son wanted to join Scouts under the condition that I become a Boy Scout Leader… I did so and he and I enjoyed it for 1 ½ years.

    We did many things on our vacation ie: go to Disneyland for 3 days; tour Los Angeles then on to Mexico. While in Mexico my family swam, boogie boarded in the ocean, went sailing, read and yes we allowed our son to play games on my iPhone.

    We were on vacation. During the end of our 2 week vacation, he roamed throughout the day over 3 days for approximately 4 hours each day, knowing he was disobeying me, never for 12 consecutive hours as reported in a number of publications. Sorry, we were on vacation and we did lots of family activities together. Normally he gets a total of 8 hours /week of computer or TV screen time.

    I appreciate you reading this far and I am hoping that maybe my experience will help the CRTC regulate these companies to be responsible in their billing practices. Once again, I understand that as his father I am responsible for his actions and am prepared to pay a reasonable amount for this data use however, I believe that the telecom companies are exploiting their customers and should be curtailed.

    Solution: When travelling, remove Sim Card so they never do this to my family again

    I sincerely hope in the near future that other Canadian travelers will not be subjected to this kind of corporate misbehavior.

    Matthew Buie B.Sc., CFP

  • Jean-François Mezei

    Mr Buie,

    “Airplane mode” also disables wifi. (but you can then re-enable wi-fi only, but not many know this).

    In Settings -> General – Cellular, you can disable Cellular Data, and you an disable Data Roaming.

    In the case of Fido, because they disable the ability to set the APN, you do not have the ability to force fail any data use attempt. (changing APN to invalid one prevents any data usage).

    Unfortunatly, the iPhone insists on a SIM card. Next time, get a unactivated SIM card from Fido or an Apple store and put that into the phone. The phone will purr nicely for all functions except those that require connection to cellular network. This will realy prevent any roaming.

    Back when Fido was Fido, roaming was disabled by default and you had to call to enable it. It is possible they still have the ability to disable roaming if you call. them.

    Fido should have sent you SMS not long after you activated the phone in Mexico.

    BTW, even of they charge you only $200 at the end of the day, Rogers is still making lots money off you.

    Also, Mr Goldberg noticed that in the CBC article, the actual $22,000 amounts are not shown. Could you clarify whether a bill was in fact issued prior to the charges being reduced ?

    This is why all phones should be unlocked. You could have gotten a very affordable local prepaid SIM card in mexico and used your phone as it was meant to be used, complete with mapping etc.

    And if phones were unlocked, canadian carriers would think twice about setting the default roaming rates to ludicrous levels because they would have to compete against local carriers.