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The Real Price of Progress

I could almost hear the unspoken expression, “Oh heck” or worse, at the other end of the phone. I had been speaking to a very pleasant young lady on the Vodafone customer service line, with what I thought was a simple query and which in the end, became a little more complex than perhaps Vodafone might have liked.

You may remember, that last month, I decided to do away with my Compaq IPAQ PDA and replace this and my mobile phone with a Sony Ericsson P900 “Smartphone.”

Alright, I had some teething problems, the manufacturer’s surprise that I had five thousand names in my Microsoft Outlook address book, which took two hours to synchronise with the phone on the first attempt, it’s refusal to install firmware updates from the Sony site, fun and games trying to make GPRS email work smoothly and of course, it’s irritating habit of spontaneously calling my mother-in-law or Unisys in Uxbridge without any intervention on my part and with the key lock turned firmly on, which can be rather embarrassing.

Otherwise, the P900 is a useful piece of kit, basically, a Palm Pilot and a phone combined but this isn’t a review, its all about my first month’s phone bill, which was a little higher than expected.

You, see, I had noticed that on two trips to France in the last month, I couldn’t seem to collect my GPRS mail consistently. On the Eurostar, I joked that the train was going too fast for the mail to catch-up with me but in Lyons, with no visible GPRS connection to my mail server at all, I even asked my wife to call Vodafone and see if their service was down.

GPRS mail does, I know, work quite well in most of Europe that I’ve been to. I’ve road-tested both the Compaq IPAQ and the Blackberry and even filed my “Thought for the Day”, from a hotel room in central Spain, so Lyons and the Interpol building, should at least be on the edge of civilisation as we know it.

“Why”, I asked the Vodafone customer services helpdesk “is my phone bill showing very expensive GPRS connections for mail access attempts that didn’t connect?”

“GPRS doesn’t work well in Europe”, she told me “and we recommend that customers don’t use it when travelling abroad.” At this point I became really quite interested and warned her that everything she said “Was on the record”, prompting a short but almost audible silence at the other end of the line.

“I’ll transfer you”, she said and then promptly sent me to telephone limbo for five minutes before I called back and spoke to another operator, repeating my story. After another, long hold, this second lady, came back to me and said that her colleague had reported the conversation to her supervisor and “Yes”, it was true, “Vodafone don’t recommend that customers use GPRS services abroad.”

“But I’ve been billed for something I didn’t receive”, I argued, “Isn’t that wrong?”

Apparently GPRS is no different from GSM. The moment you try and make a connection the billing starts and if GPRS continues to poll the Vodafone mail service in a vain attempt to download your mail, you pay through the proverbial nose as the foreign service provider charges you for the time the line is up, regardless of whether you receive any mail in return.

“I’m sorry”, I said, “but you say you warn your customers about this, when?”

“When they complain about the size of the bill”, she replied

“And so I will be doing Vodafone a favour, if I warn my readers not to use Vodafone GPRS in Europe?” I said.

“It’s up to you”, she replied but we have decided to credit back the charges on your account. “That’s very kind of you”, I said.

So there you have it. Vodafone appears to have a GPRS problem in Europe which should carry a health warning and costs customers the proverbial arm and a leg and which they only find out about after they have received their bill and if they decide to complain and not before. I suspect that this is the price of cellular progress but others might see it as evidence of sharp practise in the European mobile telephony business.


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