Canadian largest wireless providers charge some of the highest fees for international data roaming among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Canadians travelling abroad paid an average of $24.06 to use one megabyte of data in a single day if they were Bell and Rogers subscribers during the study period last fall. That's 2.6 times the OECD average of $9.27, according to the report released Wednesday.

One megabyte is equivalent to the amount of data needed to send 10 photos, the report said.

The OECD compared advertised mobile data roaming offers from the two largest operators in each of the 34 OECD countries between Sept. 7 to Oct. 7, 2010. According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, Rogers was the wireless company with the biggest market share in 2010, with 9.0 million subscribers, followed by Bell and its affiliates with 7.2 million.

Roaming charges were second-highest in the U.S. ($21.58) and Mexico ($19.42) and lowest in Greece ($4.08).

Canadian fees were a little more competitive for longer trips  — Canada slipped to the fifth most expensive spot, behind Chile, the U.S., Poland and Japan, when comparing the cost of five megabytes of data over five days. Fees varied by destination, and Canadian roaming fees for the lowest-priced destination were below the OECD average.

The OECD called the prices "high" worldwide overall.

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The OECD compared advertised mobile data roaming offers from the two largest operators in each of the 34 OECD countries between Sept. 7 to Oct. 7, 2010. ((Reuters))

"Current pricing levels indicate that there is, in general terms, either insufficient retail or wholesale competition," the report said, adding that there is a "strong case for new consumer protection and empowerment measures."

It recommended that mobile operators put in place measures to reduce roaming charges such as sending a warning text message to users when they travel abroad or setting a cut-off limit based on price or the amount of data used.

The report suggested two possible reasons why prices are so much lower in Greece than in Canada:

  • Lower wholesale prices, with savings being passed on to consumers.
  • Greater competition in the retail roaming market.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds a Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, wrote on his blog Wednesday that the report is "yet another illustration of the high cellphone costs faced by Canadian consumers and the desperate need for a more competitive marketplace."

'Consumer pain point'

Carly Suppa, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said in an email that her company believes it is "critical to make roaming affordable and we’re continually looking for ways to deliver this for our customers."

She said Rogers has a number of specially priced roaming packages available, including one for unlimited roaming in the U.S. for $10 a month on top of regular domestic plan fees and others that cost $0.80 to $3 per megabyte of data.

"These products would rank us among the lowest cost of countries surveyed," she wrote.

Brent Johnston, vice-president of mobility marketing for Telus Corp., said his company agrees wholeheartedly with the OECD study's conclusion that more attention needs to be paid to international roaming fees and making things simpler for clients.

"This is a consumer pain point. It’s clear," he said.

He said the timing of the study was unfortunate because he expects Telus's roaming rates to fall by "well over 50 per cent" within weeks.

That's because of new competition from new wireless entrants in Canada and recent international agreements signed by Telus and Bell with other carriers around the world since they launched their new HSPA network in 2009. Prior to that, Johnston said, Rogers had a monopoly on international roaming within the Canadian market.

Johnston said roaming rates for Canadians are already quite cheap for the U.S., and packages with special roaming prices are available for customers who buy them in advance. But he admitted that many customers don't know about them, and may find them complicated because they often require customers to predict their data usage ahead of time. He added that Telus plans to roll out simpler options in the near future.

The company already notifies customers when they have used $10, $50 or $200 of international roaming, he said.