Plan Ahead: Roaming Charges Are A Killer

As the world gets more connected and computerized, it is easy to have an unintended consequence pop up and bite you. Especially because, so much of the time, today, things just work. The days of fretting over how to connect two computers, or how to store reasonable amounts of data are gone. Most of us never have to sift through assembly language programs finding three extra bytes to add a feature. Some Russian scientists recently found out about unintended consequences the hard way.

In the United States, the Eagle was long on the endangered species list, but apparently they have a similar problem in Russia. Scientists put a tracker on some migrating eagles in southern Russia and Kazakhstan. A few decades ago, this would have been a big technical challenge, but now you just use cellular technology and have the tracker text its location, right?

The problem, however, is the birds left the cellular service area and wound up in Iran and Pakistan after being out of cellular range. Text messages that had cost between 3 cents and 23 cents shot up to 77 cents causing the tracking scientist’s phone bill to skyrocket as the devices sent data to catch up.

The press coverage isn’t very technical, so we don’t know if they could have consolidated messages to save money or even incorporated geofencing so as not to text out of the local calling area. But it is a great case of where something that seems fine doesn’t do well once you deploy it.

We couldn’t help thinking about Tesla’s recent flash wear problem as being similar. Not to mention the time we sent a device with a modem programmed for TouchTone dialing to a pole in the middle of nowhere that only had regular dialing available. Some issues don’t show up for years, so a working system is no promise you won’t eventually have an unexpected problem.

Photo credit: T.R. Shankar Raman CC-SA-3.0.

20 thoughts on “Plan Ahead: Roaming Charges Are A Killer

    1. Actually Russia is much bigger than entire EU and it would cost the same to call from Novokhovansk to Novo-Aleksandrovsk as it would be calling your mate next street in Moscow.

      1. Which would mean “a lot” since a single price area would mean subsidizing thousands of kilometers of infrastructure to half-way across the globe on the same phone charge.

        That’s why I don’t really believe you.

        1. I do live in Russia. Things are a bit different for landline vs cell.
          For cell – prices inside of the region are one thing, outside of the region – another, difference is about 1.4 times for the same cell operator and about 5 times from cell to landline.
          Still – it gets between 0.036 to 0.21$ per minute. At least for the operator I currently use.
          This works over most of the Russia (except some parts in the far north and crimea).
          Roaming prices outside of Russia are kinda of the ‘you do not want to call’ variety.

        2. Even here in the US with verizon, I can be in Barrow, Alaska (which does have a cell tower! although the reception is reportedly terrible) and call someone in southern Mexico, at no additional charge. That’s 4700 miles.

          It’s 2019. Phone systems are all VOIP. The internet costs the same no matter where the server you’re connecting to is – why should phone calls be any different?

  1. Since this is a research project into migratory birds, a fairly “niche” but still relevant application, then couldn’t just a few governments just agree that ISPs should offer a “research account” or something, that doesn’t have roaming charges, though requiring a bit of paperwork to assign. Also likely have it limited to 1-2 text messages a day or similar.

    It would help this kind of research a fair bit, especially for the birds that migrates over a very long distance, crossing multiple countries and so forth.

    1. Since this is a research project, the ISP will raise the price 100x and expect you to get a government grant to pay for it.
      Really you must learn how the whole research scam works, it’s a profit extravaganza for those with leverage.

  2. Restritctint the messages to only when the birds were in some areas would defeat the purpose of the tracking. Maybe it would be useful, for many things, some kind of special message that could be used in all carriers/all countries with fixed( lets say, local ) prices, like some kind of international agreement.

    1. The trackers stored the location data but as the birds wandered into areas without service, the trackers couldn’t send it. When the birds next got to a place with service, the trackers sent off all the accumulated position data – at Iranian out of area roaming prices.

      Setting the trackers to just store location data, and providing them with a huge amount of storage, until the birds return home would get all the same data, just delayed.

      A problem with that would be losing the data collected out of the home phone area if the bird dies or for some reason decides to leave the nest for good and never come back.

  3. Comparing this to the Tesla flash problem seemed odd to me at a first glance but thinking about it, I see a single big similarity: both problems are not really a surprise and could easily have been avoided. People who do embedded programming (should) know about flash memory wear. Everyone who uses a mobile device nowadays knows about roaming and anyone who knows something about animals knows that they don’t really respect country borders.
    I don’t want to sound arrogant but my impression is that too many systems nowadays are implemented by noobs (or experts under too much pressure so they forget about basic things).

  4. Like any predator, they follow the food supply, and stick around, until the area no longer fits their needs, then the go looking for a new place to hunt. They’ll return home when it’s breeding time.

  5. The funny thing is that we covered the odd thing about text messages on this very site just over a decade ago. They are transmitted purely on the carrier wave, which means they don’t even load the network anymore than it does when a phone connects to the tower normally.

    You’re correct, I am not a stooge.

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