Commentary: Ken Lo pays a visit to Hong Kong and wonders what Britain could learn about how they do mobile in Hong Kong.

I was recently lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Hong Kong. It’s a fascinating city to visit. The city was exciting, the food was varied and plentiful and the shopping centres were well… huge. For a technology blogger, it was a great place to visit too. Hong Kong is a bustling city where people really make full use of technology. There were mobile phone shops on every street corner, everyone would be waving around their cutting-edge Android smartphones and wi-fi was available freely in many public parks, tourist attractions, coffee shops and shopping centres.

As usual, I took my unlocked phone with me to Hong Kong. Because the mobile networks in Hong Kong and the UK both use GSM technology, a UK mobile phone would have no problems working in Hong Kong (see our discussion on GSM, CDMA and mobile technologies used worldwide).

Following our guide on using your phone abroad without breaking the bank, I purchased a local Pay As You Go SIM card in Hong Kong. This meant there was no need to pay the extortionate international roaming fees charged by my UK network.

Buying a SIM card in Hong Kong was incredibly easy. Like in the UK, SIM cards are totally free – you just pay for your initial top-up (88 HKD for mine). You lot the SIM card into your phone and you’re done (the one important thing to use the international phone number format when calling home e.g. +44)

Call prices in Hong Kong: 20x less than in the UK

The first thing that shocked me was the incredibly low costs of using a mobile phone in Hong Kong: Hong Kong networks charge a fraction of what UK networks would charge.

My SIM card cost 88HKD (the number 8 is considered lucky in Hong Kong and so you’ll notice a lot of 8s in prices) – or about £7.30 in Sterling. Before I arrived, I assumed call prices would be roughly in line with UK prices so I expected to top up several times before going home. How wrong could I be.

Calls to other Hong Kong numbers (landlines and mobile) were 0.8p/min (I’m reporting prices in Sterling for ease of comparison). Texts cost between 1.7p and 6.6p each. International calls to many countries including the US (all phones) and the UK (only landlines) cost 1.5p/min. Calls to UK mobiles cost 9p/minute offpeak and 17p/minute during peak hours.

Let’s compare that against typical costs charged by UK mobile networks:

Price in Hong Kong tariff
(converted to Sterling)
Price on typical UK tariff Price on cheap UK tariff
Call to local landline 0.8p/min 20p/min 8p/min*
Call to local mobile 0.8p/min 20p/min 8p/min*
Sending text 1.7p 10p 4p/min*
Intl. call 1.5p/min £1.50/min 4p/min**

We’ve listed the approximate charges of the PAYG tariffs offered by the major networks. For the cheap UK tariff, we have listed the prices charged by * Giffgaff and ** LycaMobile.

To summarise, in Hong Kong calls are between 10 and 20 times cheaper and texts are between 2 and 5 times cheaper. International calls from Hong Kong are about 100 times cheaper than in the UK (although a specialist international call provider such as LycaMobile can come close to matching Hong Kong prices).

the escape
Creative Commons License photo: hurtingbombz

For me the key question is why there is such a big disparity between call charges in the UK and Hong Kong. Is it due to regulatory reasons? Mobile termination rates? A lack of competition in the UK market? Or perhaps UK consumers need to vote with their feet more to seek the lowest prices?

Another interesting observation was that in Hong Kong you had to pay when you receive a call. This didn’t bother me much as calls were so cheap anyway. However I could understand how frustrated local residents sometimes feel when they are receive unwanted marketing calls and are charged for the privilege.

Reception: 5-bar, everywhere

In the UK I usually get fairly frustrated with reception my phone. I live in Central London and I often struggle to even receive a one-bar 3G signal. The implications of this are that my phone has a much shorter battery life than advertised and occasional dropped calls can be frustrating.

My experience of Hong Kong couldn’t be more different. I seldom remember the signal ever dropping below 5 bars You could receive a 5 bar mobile signal whilst underground in the MTR metro system. You would have a 5-bar signal when passing underneath the Harbour in a tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island to mainland China. You would receive a 5-bar signal on the ferry. You would get a 5-bar signal in the basement of the shopping centre. In fact, you’d struggle to find a 4-bar signal anywhere in Hong Kong (I suspect the iPhone death grip would be hard to reproduce in Hong Kong!). And because the reception was so good, I found that the phone lasted noticeably longer between charges.

City of Light
Creative Commons License photo: Klardrommar

My key question is why there is such a big difference between reception in the UK and Hong Kong. Are UK networks investing enough in their networks? Is it too difficult to find somewhere to build a mast and to obtaining planning permission in the UK? Perhaps the abundance of tall buildings in Hong Kong makes it easier to find somewhere to place a phone mast. Have the UK networks been concentrating more on making sure everyone has access to their network before investing in the quality of their network?

On a related note, it would be great to be able to use a mobile phone on the London Underground. Hint hint, Boris.

Final thoughts…

My time in Hong Kong brought home to me some of the deficiencies in the UK mobile market. It also reminded me how much fun a mobile phone can be when things just work and they work well – and when you don’t have to worry about getting signal or getting stung with high charges and high prices. I must admit I’m no expert on the Hong Kong mobile market. But in the few days I spent there, I was incredibly impressed. Perhaps there are a few things we can learn here in the UK.

Your Comments 6 so far

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  • A great article but It is almost unfair to compare hongkong mobile system with the UK because – apart from the technical explanation one fundamental issue is hongkong is a super high pace city that has zero tolerance to anything that does not work 100% ALL THE TIME – telecommunication transportation even immigration counters!
    Coming from hongkong I have lived in central London and Paris for almost ten years. I noticed eventhough there is new investment in the UK or French systems – when people don't demand or expect things to work all the time and perfectly, operators can get away with lot lot more.

  • I think it basically comes down to population density:

    Hong Kong: 6,348.641 people per km2
    UK: 254.676 people per km2

    As you can see there is a 2392.83 % increase in the number of people per km2 in HK relative to the UK. I expect this translates into a higher cost per customer for UK mobile companies in order to provide network infrastructure, as the average mast would serve less customers in the UK, as well as the masts would be farther apart incurring more costs for back haul. This would probably explain why call costs would be higher in the UK compared to HK.

    It would also possibly explain why there is generally worse reception in the UK, as it would probably be economically unfeasible to provide 5 bar reception all over the UK, as the cost to put more towers in wouldn't be covered, unless you wanted to pay higher call charges of course.

    • HKer in Edinburgh replied:

      That's understandable if you look at the UK as a whole, but Mr Ken Lo did mention specifically that he lives in *central* London. Now, London as a whole has a population density of 4807/km2;, and I suspect Central London is significantly more densely populated than that. If you look up you can see that Central London is absolutely brimming with mobile phone masts.

      So why does Mr Lo still struggle to receive a 1-bar signal in Central London? I'm going to attribute this to the attitude of certain crackheads in the UK who believe that genetically-modified food will turn us into monsters and mobile phone masts are somehow going to give us cancer, among other things. British network operators are forced to keep their signal strength within restrictive limits and make their masts as unobstrusive as possible. I'm not surprised that the result is a low-quality signal.

    • HKer in Edinburgh replied:

      [Addendum] In defence of the UK mobile industry, it's still a lot better and cheaper here than in a lot of countries. Think UK prices are high? In Continental Europe and Japan they pay twice as much. Even in Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which are often compared to Hong Kong, it costs as much to use your mobile as in the UK. In China, it costs a BIT less but people earn a LOT less. Think signal is bad in the UK? Well, it's worse in the US. Hong Kong is an exceptional case – you won't find anything like it anywhere else on Earth. So I'm still grateful for what I've got in the UK…

    • Haha, good point Marcoscu 🙂 There is a roaming fee of about 60p per call but I believe that after that you pay the standard call rate. So for UK-to-UK call using HK roaming whilst off-peak (probably in Hong Kong timezone) it'd be 60p setup plus 9p/minute. So you're right, it could be cheaper than using a UK mobile directly!

      I wonder if there are any other nice little geographical roaming arbitrages we can use!

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