Confession time.  Have you ever traveled abroad and returned home with a massive cell phone bill?

On a recent US–>Europe trip, I decided not to buy the outrageously expensive daily package from my service provider because I thought I would use data services “sparingly” while in the US.

OOPS.

I will spare you all the details of my smartphone bill horror story…it was ugly.  Luckily, I am not alone in my dislike for the state of international data roaming. (Please see this ZDNet article from Larry Dignan on the state of data roaming.)

Data roaming is a problem between European countries as well.  Individual country data plans provide a barrier to basic mCommerce and Location Based Services (LBS) like Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.  As a German subscriber, it is hard for me to personally leverage Foursquare’s rich local business discovery tools (tips, recommendations) when I am in London unless I am willing to pay for expensive daily add-on data packages.   My European friends, who aren’t using LBS tools yet, get frustrated when they are on holiday in Spain and simply want to buy something via smartphone.

The roaming problem is so bad, mCommerce powerhouse eBay recently issued a mobile manifesto in the UK with several recommendations on how to reduce prohibitive data roaming charges.  Two thirds of eBay survey respondents  (63%) say they are put off using the internet more overseas because of the cost of downloading data.

But back to Foursquare

In Sept, Guy Brighton from PSFK wondered out loud whether Foursquare was gaining real traction in Europe.  Foursquare claims that 40% of all downloads across its 10 Million strong user base come from overseas.  From my own experience, however, beyond some of the edgier urban city locals, Foursquare is not being used much in Europe.  This is likely driven by general lack of awareness, privacy issues, cultural issues and (to some extent) roaming issues.

Lack of awareness in Europe is a clear issue for Foursquare.  However, I’m betting that Foursquare will get their machine fired up and continue their PR success story across the pond over the next year or two.  This should help.

There are also privacy & cultural barriers tied to the idea of signaling one’s location without much overt purpose beyond the check-in.  Many of my European friends have asked me why anyone would want to use such a service; they laugh at the idea of collecting badges & scoff about signaling their location multiple times just to receive a fictional mayor title (there aren’t a lot of loyalty deals over here just yet).

Finally, roaming issues hurt the prototypical Foursquare loving power user who travels outside the country and tends to evangelize the service to friends.  To date, Foursquare has relied on these power users to spread the word about the benefits of using Foursquare in the US.  As the data from the eBay manifesto shows, however, many UK users simply don’t use their smartphones for web surfing when they are not on the island.   The same issue applies to German, French, Spanish & Italian smartphone users.

There are a lot of barriers for Foursquare in Europe today, but also a lot of opportunities.  Europe is generally one/two years behind the US when it comes to widespread adoption of new social tools.  Foursquare has done an amazing job of leading the LBS revolution, so assuming a strong business model emerges via local ads, etc. look for them to continue their dominance overseas despite the challenges.

We are in the early innings of Location Based mobile revolution, so a lot can change in a heartbeat.

What are your thoughts here?

Photo courtesy of Lospibesdesistemas