It has been a while since the EU introduced regulations to address the cost of roaming in Europe - 2007 to be precise. Undoubtedly, this was a welcome piece of legislation for consumers and businesses, with 'Eurotariff' limits being imposed - no more than 43 Euro cents per minute to make a voice call and 19 cents per minute to receive a call before 2010. In addition, mobile service providers now have to apply per second billing, as well as sending users information on the price of calls when they first enter another EU country, usually done via a 'Welcome' SMS. The legislation was extended in 2009 to encompass SMS and data services. So far, so good and, according to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, this has resulted in a reduction of retail prices (not costs) of more than 50% for most users.

While this is undoubtedly a move in the right direction, it is important to keep this in perspective, particularly from a business viewpoint. Economic downturn aside, mobility, including roaming, and the need to maintain effective business communications while mobile is increasing, irrespective of whether this is within the home country, regionally based or global, which in turn leads to increasing costs. And as this spend spirals upwards, there is increasing pressure on IT and communications managers to reign this in. This is already being evidenced with some companies reducing the number of corporate sponsored mobiles across the business, and setting monthly spending limits on mobile usage.

Given this need to balance increasing mobility needs against increasing cost, a recent announcement from Agito Networks, a company that focuses on solutions for enterprise mobility, is worth highlighting. The company, which is probably better known for its support of voice over wireless LAN (WLAN) has recently released a solution for delivering enterprise grade voice over 3G data.

What this means is that when a user roams abroad, rather than using cellular voice, calls can be made and received using cellular data. The advantage of this centres around how data plans are currently priced compared to voice plans. A growing number of US data plans that businesses can subscribe to offer unlimited international data as extension to the standard plan, for a fixed (and, by comparison to usage based pricing, relatively modest) additional fee. To date, however, Europe is behind the US on data roaming plans, meaning that this solution will only make sense as and when these plans become more commonplace.

Of course, for heavy users of roaming voice, who are on such a plan, by using 3G data to make voice calls, the costs will effectively be absorbed into an 'all you can eat' package. In this scenario, it is evident that there could be substantial cost savings available. And while it won't be cost effective for each and every user, for an IT manager who has to contend with spiralling mobile costs, it merits at least a cursory investigation.

Unlike the situation with mobile VoIP, mobile operators in the US at least, have not (according to Agito Networks) had an adverse reaction to voice carried in this way, as the volume of traffic involved is not significant enough as a portion of the whole (roaming business users compared to everyone else), and this essentially creates user stickiness. Again, time will tell whether European operators will feel as comfortable, given that international data roaming is much more significant in terms of data volumes.

Of course, it remains to be seen how much businesses will embrace this particular solution, and of course, if they do, then they clearly need to pay careful attention to the calculations and all the variables involved. What this does highlight is that the cost of mobile communications is a critical one for businesses, and one that will continue to generate solutions aimed at minimising these costs.

By Josie Sephton, principle analyst at Freeform Dynamics.