Let’s talk about sponsored roaming: complex challenge, simple solution


In simple terms, you can think of sponsored roaming as a one-stop shop; a solution that lets you instantly broaden the international coverage that you offer (and your subscribers expect) without having to laboriously expand your roaming offering by negotiating one agreement-at-a-time, a process that could, literally, take years. With sponsored roaming, this is achieved via a single agreement with one partner, generally an established network (in other words, the “sponsoring network”) on whose existing international roaming coverage you then piggyback.

To understand in more detail why this prospect, of sponsored roaming, is so attractive, it’s necessary to dig a little into the complexities of roaming itself (essentially, to understand the steps that sponsored roaming avoids). Let’s do that here with a rough guide to roaming basics. And, then let’s consider what this means in terms of delivering the experience your customers demand – and the assurance you need.

Roaming is complex

Roaming sounds simple in principle but in practice it isn’t. If you want your own native IMSI to be enabled for your subscribers to use around the world, there’s more to it than just identifying a partner operator and signing a roaming agreement. It’s not just a matter of commercials. You need to consider issues like how you are going to address:

  • signalling control
  • protocol conversion
  • mapping
  • authentication
  • provisioning & management
  • clearing and settlement for usage

…not to mention providing seamless customer service. Only once all those questions are answered and it’s been established that the user’s phone is authorised for use, the destination network has created a temporary subscriber record for the device and the home network has updated its subscriber record on where the device is located is everything set. The question is, what’s the best way to get to that point?

Technical and other challenges

The challenges don’t stop there, either. International roaming presents technical which (without a sponsored roaming agreement) can be costly to meet.  Foremost among these are:

  1. Prepaid roaming: Prepaid roaming requires the implementation of specific platforms, and these are expensive to implement, particularly for smaller operators (thus making sponsored roaming a particularly attractive option for that market segment).
  2. Interoperability is a challenge: Underlying technologies vary across (and sometimes within) different geographic regions and this can be a barrier to seamless roaming. Plus, use of different spectrum can prevent many low-cost handsets from roaming at all. To resolve this, cost again becomes an issue, as investment will be required to provide consistent quality of service across all roaming networks.
  3. Universal coverage: Network coverage both globally and domestically will always be in a state of flux as operators continue to roll out and upgrade their networks. To promote roaming and ensure transparency this leads to a communication and marketing cost for the home operator.

Pricing issues

Because their subscribers tend to be highly aware of anything related to roaming, pricing issues are both sensitive and extremely important for operators to be able to address. An example of this is the cost of using a mobile abroad and by extension the issue of “bill shock” which provides a particularly visible and much publicised example of why this is the case.

Today, roaming prices are generally declining globally and operators are increasingly offering subscribers choices in tariff. However, even then pricing remains a problematic topic with different customer segments having different usage requirements from each other. This makes the issue of agreements difficult to regulate because there are limited common benefits across all subscriber segments.

The list of challenges outlined in the above “rough guide” is, of course, far from comprehensive. Different geographies present different roaming challenges and universal regulation is thus an inevitably complex topic. But the list does provide a basic understanding of the complexity involved in negotiating roaming agreements and, by extension, an obvious answer to the question “why is sponsored roaming an attractive proposition”? To a great extent, sponsored roaming means the hard work is done for you.

A comprehensive (and simple) solution

Put another way, think of roaming like this: there’s what you want to offer your customers (which means addressing that complex set of requirements above) and finding a straightforward way to deliver it. That’s where sponsored roaming steps in.

Tackling issues like those above one roaming agreement at a time isn’t optimal, at least not for often under-resourced operators. Sponsored roaming, on the other hand, can be just that because it can deliver the ability to:

  • Provide transparent roaming regardless of network type to support maximum coverage in any location or geography
  • A one number, one bill service globally
  • Support all existing services and often provide additional ones while in the roamed network
  • Enable SMS without third-party involvement
  • Deliver seamless data inter-working for all network types

…in just one, far more straightforward step.

Sponsored roaming

As we’ve established, negotiating roaming relationships with countless operators around the world on a one-by-one basis is at best time consuming and arguably impractical for many operators. In contrast, Sponsored Roaming can enable near instant set up of roaming coverage and services through an agreement that delivers all the related wholesale roaming agreements and activities required in one go. Thus, Sponsored Roaming can enable global mobile service coverage at a low investment, delivering what the subscriber generally seeks quickly and seamlessly. This being the case, sponsored roaming can rapidly deliver four fundamental advantages:

  • A one-stop shop addressing technology, payment/clearing, and pricing barriers.
  • Global roaming coverage, as required
  • Competitive, or at least pre-negotiated rates
  • Scalability, to further expand global coverage as/when required

Sponsored roaming’s appeal also includes a degree of future proofing, and covers voice, SMS, and data services the latter of which are becoming ever more critical as IoT expands. And sponsored roaming generally includes real time policy control functionality allowing home operators to control subscriber’s roaming data usage which, as already noted, is a critical issue in the roaming landscape due to the challenge of bill shock.

Ultimately, for smaller and virtual mobile network operators (and, possibly, some medium-sized ones as well) sponsored roaming is likely to make sense. By leveraging the established footprint and technology of a tier one, it’s an opportunity for rapid and quick service expansion with seamless deployment, negotiable pricing models and access to innovative technologies that the smaller operator may not natively have access to.

About Utel

Utel helps telcos to gain greater control of how their networks are performing, improve service assurance, and benefit from an enhanced ability to deliver the best possible experience to their customers.  If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch directly by clicking here.