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Wireless Roaming: The Shakedown Of World Travelers

from the sounds-good-in-theory,-but-in-practice... dept

Of all US workers considered “mobile”, only 15% regularly leave their home region during the course of business. But for that 15%, getting reliable cellular phone service on the road becomes as challenging a proposition as making an O’Hare connection during a mid-West snowstorm. Many carriers in the marketplace tout their global roaming abilities, but when the plane touches down and you power up your phone don’t be surprised to see “no service” on your screen. Derek Kerton writes about his experiencing trying to “roam” on his wireless phone. Click on “read more” below to get the full story.

Wireless Phone Roaming
The Shake-down Of World Travelers
by Derek Kerton

Of all US workers considered "mobile", only 15% regularly leave their home region during the course of business. But for that 15%, getting reliable cellular phone service on the road becomes as challenging a proposition as making an O'Hare connection during a mid-West snowstorm. Many carriers in the marketplace tout their global roaming abilities, but when the plane touches down and you power up your phone don't be surprised to see "no service" on your screen.

Last week I returned from a trip to Africa and Europe that left me thinking about the sad state of global roaming. It seems there are a lot of problems a cellular customer can encounter when trying to use their phone in foreign lands, some technical, and others cost-based. After traveling to four continents in the past two months with two phones, I have found that travel indeed can be perilous, but the worst muggings may not lurk around street corners but are in fact on the other side of the "Send" key.

Firstly, some definitions. National Roaming occurs when you are in your carrier's operating country, but you have entered an area where your carrier does not provide coverage so you have been automatically switched over to another carrier's towers and network. International roaming is what happens when you leave your carrier's country, and connect to another carrier's network in the foreign destination. In both cases, the company providing you with coverage is not the company that provides you with a bill. Since operating a cellular network is not charitable act, the roaming carrier will only provide you with phone connections if they are able to pass the call charges back to your carrier for billing. These inter-billing relationships are called Roaming Agreements and they are struck between carriers to define the billing rates of roamer calls. Here's the first problem customers will have: You can only use your phone in places where a local carrier has signed a Roaming Agreement with your home carrier. Often, your destination will not fall into this category. Larger carriers are doing a steady job of adding Roaming Agreements, and they proudly list roaming partners on their brochures and websites.

I'll fall quickly into problem number two, here: The Roaming Agreements that are struck are awful! It seems to be an industry convent to extort money from customers as soon as they leave their own network. Just as an example, Cingular (USA) customers in France pay $2.49 per minute for outbound local calls to France, and a whopping $3.99 per minute for incoming calls. Cingular explains the high incoming rate as including the $2.49 for airtime and an additional $1.50 for long-distance charges in re-sending the call from the US-dialed number to France. Other carriers have similar pricing. The reason for this gouging is that cell phone customers and purchasing managers choose a cellular service provider based on domestic rates, and almost never consider the roaming rates, so carriers have little reason to lower these prices. People often cringe after receiving a low-priority call when roaming overseas, since even annoyance calls can cost you $8 in a blink.

Of course, roaming agreements and prices matter little to the traveler who powers up the phone to find no service at all at their destination. This situation happens because of a lack of a roaming agreement between destination and home carriers, or different frequencies of operation, or different technologies for encoding the calls. A CDMA phone (most Verizon or Sprint customers use these) will roam only to a few countries (Canada, South Korea, Brazil...) because CDMA is less established globally. What's more CDMA operators normally use one of three different frequencies (800MHz, 1800MHz, 1900MHz), so a Sprint PCS phone is unlikely to work on a TeleSP network in Brazil, for example.

GSM customers find themselves in a somewhat better position. Your phone is GSM if you have a "SIM" card in it. The SIM is a smart chip that contains your carrier's network configuration and your subscriber identity on it. Global GSM deployment is much more widespread than CDMA, and thus better for world travelers. Once again, there are different frequencies used in different countries (see http://www.gsmworld.com/index.shtml). US and Canadian customers are almost always on the GSM 1900MHz band. That's unfortunate, since almost every other place in the world is not. Most countries operate GSM on 900 and 1800MHz frequencies, making the US and Canadian travelers resort to payphones or smoke signals. Relief comes in the form of multi-band phones (or "world phones"), which I highly recommend selecting at the time of purchase. World phones are usually capable of both the widely used 900MHz and North American 1900MHz.

GSM customers also have a truly cost-saving option when they travel. Assuming their phone operates on a frequency that is available in the destination country, they can purchase a SIM card from a local carrier, and swap it with the one in their phone. These cards can often be bought in the destination airport or convenience store, but can also be bought (at a premium) before departure from companies like www.telestial.com. With a SIM card from a local provider, you operate like any other customer of that carrier. Your home carrier is completely out of the relationship. If bought in the destination country, a SIM card including a local number usually cost about US$30, and include 15 minutes or so of prepaid usage. Additional minutes of use can be added in a multitude of ways, the most popular of which is to buy a prepaid card at a local tobacconist or convenience store. The card includes a scratch-off pad hiding a numeric code that can easily be entered into your phone to add the minutes to your account. Cost per minute varies widely depending on carrier and country, but in economically developed regions expect around 50 cents per minute for outbound calls, and nil for inbound! (most countries use a calling-party-pays model for cellular). In this prepaid relationship, there is no contract, no billing address, and no information to give to the carrier.

There is however, one problem with this SIM card swap: your friendly home provider may have "locked" the phone to their SIM card. SIM card locking is a way carriers assure that phones they subsidized get used only on their networks. It's dirty pool in my books, since they already make the customer sign a contract for a year or more with a penalty for leaving - ostensibly to compensate them for their subsidy to the phone. Carriers always lead the customer to believe that the phone will belong to the customer either after the term of the contract, or after paying the early-termination penalty. The phone they have "sold" you, however, is only capable of connecting to their network! To find out if your GSM phone has the SIM card locked, either call your carrier and ask, or find a friend with a different GSM carrier, and try swapping cards. It only takes a minute to get results: either the phone will work, or it will show an error message.

So what are the best solutions for roamers? Try some of the following:

  • Go Incognito - Hey, you're on holidays, forget the cell phone and relax. Yeah, this doesn't work for me, either.
  • Domestic Roamers - If you stick to your home country, but move around within it a lot, choose a carrier with national network coverage and a nationwide plan. Be aware when you are roaming, and try to reduce call volume at these times.
  • Global Roamers - Choose your carrier with a preference for GSM, but be sure to get a "world" phone or you will get none of the roaming benefits of GSM. Be auspicious in your use of global roaming services since charges can escalate rapidly, and you are contractually liable for them to your home carrier.
  • Road Warriors - Buy or borrow a SIM-unlocked GSM world phone for use whenever you go abroad and need to stay in touch. Do this as either your primary phone, or as a separate handset just for travel. Use a prepaid account in the destination country. Sharing the new foreign number with an admin helps route priority calls to you.
  • My Solution - I prefer the call characteristics, and higher data rates of the CDMA 1X networks in the US, so I'm a Sprint PCS customer while at home. When in Canada, I simply take a beating on CDMA digital roaming (~80 cents/min). For global roaming, I picked up an Ericsson R380 Worldphone (US$95 on eBay) that operates on GSM 900 and 1900. I have popped SIM cards from a half dozen carriers into the Ericsson to keep costs down while abroad. While using the Ericsson, I try to arrange the majority of my calls as inbound, which is usually free.
By now it should be clear that global roaming is as complex as the bill your cellular provider sends you every month, and then some. This discussion only reflects voice services, since data roaming is even more problematic. Furthermore, not all special services, such as voice mail, messaging, or other premium services can be guaranteed while roaming. But despite the challenges, as individuals and as business people we have a driving need to communicate. That being the case, there are ways to reduce the costs, disconnections, and inconveniences of cellular communications while traveling, some of which are briefly mentioned above. There are many more methods that can be used to further provide savings, but they are less convenient, and thus apply to cases where savings are more important than simplicity. If you or your firm are active roaming cellular customers, and would like a more in-depth or customized solution for reducing communications charges, please contact the author.


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Comments on “Wireless Roaming: The Shakedown Of World Travelers”

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mgallagher says:

A few additional points that might be informative

I’m Aerial (remember them?)/Voicestream/T-Mobile customer, and while they have the worst billing and service systems I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering, there are a few redeeming points that I found while traveling – also in Europe and Africa, oddly enough. Chalk this up to the “your mileage may vary” category:

In general, Intl roaming charges are $.99/minute incoming or outgoing. But since I had the international stuff turned on for my account my off peak charges in France were $.34/minute to the US. Pretty reasonable in my book.

T-Mobile phones are locked, but if you call service they will give you a code to punch into your phone, which then gives you the IMEI code, which you then enter when you insert a pre-paid SIM, and BINGO – unlocked phone.

While T-mobile does offer GPRS, even the sales people will tell you to forget about roaming onto, say an AT&T GPRS network in the US, much less SFR, Orange or any other “foreign” network. So, your’re stuck with 9.6 Kbit, even if you’re paying $40 a month for “T-Zones” data service. Although this isn’t too bad, I updated my web site every day, complete with digital photos over a 9600 connection!

It’s also been my experience that coverage is better in European cities. I regulary get the network-overload-induced “Emergency Only” message in my home town, but the only time I lost service in France was on the evening of 9/11/01. I think a lot of people had trouble calling the US that night.

So, there’s a few extra roaming tidbits. Not as complete as the account above, but a few details for T-Mobile customers.

enonamouse says:

gsm roaming

oz has 3 national gsm networks & 1.5 cdma (yes 0.5 network but thats another story). there is only limited national roaming. however i was quite surprised by the high level of international roaming agreements in europe. in some countries (ch,de) all gsm networks were available. from memory, the uk had the lowest, with only 1 out of 4 available. although with gsm caller pays, with international roaming, the receiver actually pays for the link from the home network to the current international one. to avoid this, turn unconditional voice mail on. i used sms messages 90% of the time (same cost almost everywhere) and only made a few outgoing calls to make arrangements to meet people etc. gsm roaming is one case of mandated standards working really well.

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