No domestic roaming fees for Chinese from September 1, but few care

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A woman talks on a mobile phone in Beijing, China June 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

China’s three state-owned telecommunications giants announced on Thursday to remove domestic long-distance and roaming charges from September 1, a month ahead of the previously set date. The move, which is meant to benefit its people, however, may find it hard to keep up with the population’s changing lifestyle.

China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom had pledged to scrap those charges by October 1 earlier, in response to Premier Li Keqiang’s call for telecom operators for raise data speeds and cut prices in March.

The act is expected to benefit over 1.3 billion mobile users in China, according to June figures released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The potential beneficiaries, however, seem to have a lukewarm support to the removal of the roaming charge which is almost double the cost of a local call. Customers who make a call outside their local service area are currently charged to a maximum of 0.8 yuan (US$0.12) per minute and the domestic roaming charges policy has been implemented for 23 years.

Most of the comments made under the statements post by the telecom operators on microblogging site Sina Weibo, also the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, call for the abolishment of dividing mobile data by region.

“I only care about when I can use my ‘local’ mobile data throughout the nation,” said a comment that has been widely shared online. Another comment which asked when mobile data would not be separated into local and nationwide received over 4,000 likes on the the microblogging site.

Nationwide mobile data under current plans by the three major carriers are charged with higher price per unit and are given less amount, compared to the local data quota under the same plan to be used within a city. A typical plan might give a fixed amount of data used within a city, with a much smaller amount that can be used nationwide. Consumers would need to pay the extra cost when they travel within China, and yet might find themselves not able to use up their local data quota within a month.

The dependency on mobile data has somehow surpassed the need of making a phone call, as an increasing number of Chinese has adopted to internet and accustomed of using WeChat, the dominant messaging app in China which has 938 million monthly active users. Messaging apps also allow for free voice and video calls done through the internet.

“We are seeing a long-term trend that our video and voice calls are being used so much more, especially for business meetings and communicating with grandparents,” said Stephen Wang, the head of user growth and engagement in WeChat, during Hong Kong’s Rise conference recently. On average, a user would only make 8 calls, or a total of 56 minutes on calls per month, Wang added.

The length of a cell phone call nationwide has seen a decrease of 4.7% year on year for the first six months this year, according to a telecommunications industry report released by the ministry, signalling a shift towards messaging apps.

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