Wednesday, March 10, 2010

International Cellular Data Roaming If You Dare

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International Cellular Data Roaming

Let's talk about international data roaming rates. Or not, if you're the squeamish type.

It used to be that all you'd have to worry about was the cost of international voice. And international voice rates were relatively easy to understand. That was just a few years ago. Now we want to be able to read the New York Times on our iPhone while in Paris, Twitter from our Blackberries from the southern tip of Argentina, share travel photos with friends from our Androids while in Alaska, post status updates on Facebook, download music, podcasts and movies, check flight schedules, use our smartphone's GPS (which takes data because maps are usually downloaded on an as-needed basis), and do all sorts of other things on the Internet with our phones.

But it's gong to cost you. A lot.

Between March 2009 and January 2010, AT&T increased its international roaming data rates by 100-fold. AT&T now charges 100 times more for data when you travel overseas with your iPhone or other smartphone than it did last year.

In March 2009, I paid $60 for 5 gigabytes of data for a month of overseas roaming. In August 2009, I paid $100 for 5 gigabytes of data for a month of overseas roaming. In January 2010, AT&T started charging $119 for 100 megabytes of data for a month. At this rate, you'd pay AT&T about $6,000 for the 5 gigabytes that previously cost $60. A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes. A single smartphone photo might be about a megabyte in size.

That's an incredible price increase. It's off the scale. AT&T went from charging about 1 cent a megabyte in March to charging $1.19 a megabyte for international data roaming. If you go beyond your prepaid 100 megabytes, AT&T's overage rate is $5/megabyte.

AT&T doesn't offer an option to pre-pay for anything more than 200 megabytes a month (for $199) when traveling internationally. With today's smartphones --they're virtual computers in your pocket-- you can breeze through 200 megabytes easily, almost without noticing. GPS maps, Facebook, sharing photos, checking email, reading the New York Times - these activities can quickly eat into your 100 or 200 megabyte allotment. And now that you can use Skype and other voice applications over AT&T's cellular network, well, you'd better have a pretty big credit card limit.

AT&T does offer one alternative, which is also pricey: For an additional $34.99 a month, you can get unlimited domestic and international data. That plan requires a year commitment, and an early termination fee applies.

What can justify a 100-fold increase in price other than a we-can-do-it-because-we-can attitude? AT&T touts their data plans as "Affordable World Packages" on its website, I guess "affordable" is one of those words that means whatever you want it to mean.

I'm an AT&T cellular customer (loyal though now very annoyed). Out of curiosity, I wanted to compare AT&T's international data rate to the other cellular carriers. T-Mobile charges a flat $15/megabyte when you roam internationally ($10 in Canada). Sprint charges $16/megabyte a la carte. With Verizon you can get a $129.00 plan that gives you 100 megabytes, or $219/200 megabytes. Overage fees apply: Don't ask. Actually asking doesn't always get you clarity. It took multiple calls just to eke out the basic international data rates, and customer service reps weren't even sure themselves. On its website, Verizon says that international data roaming rates are .002 cents /kilobyte. (Data rates are usually measured in kilobytes, a practically impossible measure to use when you're trying to calculate how much data you're going to need. I converted all of the kilobyte rates to megabytes, which are a little more comprehensible.) Verizon actually bills at .002 dollars/kilobyte. You can read about one unhappy Verizon customer's experience with Verizon's math illiteracy here: . Like me, I hope you'll enjoy the part of the conversation where Verizon's customer service rep says that the difference between the posted 0.002 cents/kb and the billed 0.002 dollars/kb rate is a matter of "opinion."

If you purchase a 100, 200 megabyte or other plan, pay close attention to your data usage. Cellular data doesn't turn off once you've reached your data limit. Instead, you get shifted to higher per-kilobyte rate. If you're in the middle of downloading a one gigabyte movie, the excess data cost could be more than $12,000. It better be a good movie. If you think I'm kidding about that kind of nightmare happening, you can read about the single movie download that cost $62,000 here: Or a $60,000 data charge here: . But the good news is that not all surprise international data bills are that high. Adam Savage of the cable television program Mythbusters had only an $11,000 bill after data roaming in Canada ( ).

So what should you do if you want to be able to surf the internet, check email, and share photos while traveling overseas? One option is to buy or rent an unlocked cell phone and buy a pre-paid SIM card in that country. But the data rates for pre-paid SIM cards are lousy. And you can't use your own phone with a pre-paid SIM card, unless it's unlocked (not always easy or possible.)

The only good option, if you want to avoid a really scary phone bill when you return, is to turn off cellular data and make prodigious use of wifi. Your hotel's wifi, wifi at the airport, Internet cafes can let you get on the Internet. Unfortunately this means that you can't be as footloose and fancy-free with data while traveling in other countries, and you need to figure out in advance where you can find wifi. (Yes, there are apps for that, too.)

Or it may be time to go back to sending picture postcards.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the wonderful information. You have mentioned very useful and profitable message about international SIM cards for those who travel globally. The best thing about international roaming is that it lowers your expenses on making calls in foreign destinations.