International Data Service on Your Cell
Phone part 1
How to avoid tens of thousands of
dollars in data charges but still get data service when
Danger! That movie you could watch for free on your
iPhone at home might cost you thousands of dollars in data
charges to watch when traveling internationally!
This is the first part
of a two part article about data services on your cell
phone. Part two will be released next week.
10 of an multipart series on traveling with a cell phone - click for Parts
regularity, stories are published of hapless international
travelers who return home to find a cell phone bill totalling tens of
thousands of dollars waiting for them.
These charges relate to their
data usage while out of the country. Data costs, while
negligible at home, can skyrocket out of control when traveling
The only thing worse might be
discovering that your phone can't work on any international data
service at all, and being stuck with no way to access vital internet
services such as email.
Please read on for a better
understanding of these issues.
Introduction - Other
Considerations when Traveling Internationally with Your Phone
Domestic roaming has become
so easy that it can be a surprise and even shock
when we discover that international roaming with our phone is
not as seamless as it is domestically.
Worse still, it is not only
complex, but it can also be very costly.
In terms of complexities, it
may be that your phone is not compatible with other types of cell
phone service in other countries. And in terms of costs,
your US wireless service provider probably charges you a huge
amount for placing and receiving calls internationally, while
restricting or preventing you from using cheaper services
available in the countries that you visit.
The earlier parts of this
series talk about these issues as they relate to regular voice
calling, and how you can best optimize your
strategies to get the best (and best value) set of solutions for
using your phone, internationally, to make and receive phone
But since the earlier articles
were written, there has been a tremendous evolution in cell phones
and what they are used for. Many of us now use our phones as
much for data type services as we do for voice type services.
Whether it be for sending and
receiving emails, updating our Facebook status, twittering, or
even other things such as checking in for flights, getting quotes
for the stock market and currency exchange rates, seeing what the
weather will be tomorrow, sending pictures to friends, and getting
maps and driving directions, our phones are increasingly using the
internet to provide us with all sorts of things completely
different than simply making and receiving phone calls.
The downside of this new
technology is that, like many other new technologies, pricing
starts off sky high before (hopefully) subsequently dropping.
Happily, domestic data charges are now reasonable and affordable,
but when you travel internationally, you can find yourself paying
as much as one thousand times more for data than the rates paid by
the local people.
One thousand times more!
For the exact same identical service. That is outrageous in
the extreme, and such extraordinarily inflated costs make it clear
how, if you're not careful, you can return home to a cell phone
bill in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
For example, here's a March
2011 blog entry from a person who calculated that a change to his
Verizon data plan would cost him $28,000 a month. Here's
an earlier story of a
teenager who ran up a $22,000 bill in a
single month. And, best (or should that be 'worst?) of all,
here's a story about
a C$85,000 bill. Lots more examples are out there.
Fortunately, you do have
choices and alternate strategies to help minimize these costs.
Please read on through this two part article to understand how
best to enjoy reasonably priced international data service.
Do You Actually Need Phone Based
Before you go much further,
you need to decide if using data services from your phone is
essential or not, particularly because it could be costly.
Maybe your best solution is to simply leave your phone behind, or
at the very least, to disable its data services for the duration
of your travels.
Can you get free Wi-fi access?
Some people claim they travel
their way around the world and get all the data access they need
simply by connecting to free Wi-fi hotspots.
That might have been
true once upon a time, when many Wi-fi routers were sold with an
open password-free default setting, but these days, almost every
Wi-fi router now ships with a default closed, password-required
While there are very many more
Wi-fi networks about these days, it seems that fewer of them are
open. In our own experience, we seldom find free Wi-fi
access any more.
Furthermore, we're no longer
very comfortable accepting free Wi-fi access. An
un-protected free Wi-fi service allows anyone with very simple and
inexpensive software on a laptop to monitor your Wi-fi connection,
and to pull out all your passwords and log-in details.
You've probably learned to be protective of your credit cards when
traveling overseas - you need to be similarly protective of the
data on your phone or computer and not broadcast that in an
un-password protected unencrypted form.
Accessing the internet through
a Wi-fi hotspot also implies that you are staying in one location
for the duration of your internet access. That is commonly
the case if you are in a hotel room for the night, but during the
day while traveling around, you may not wish to spend valuable
time parked at a coffee shop or somewhere with free Wi-fi.
The 'time cost' of doing so might outweigh the saving in data
Furthermore, Wi-fi access is
only helpful to you if your cell phone is also Wi-fi compatible.
Can you get internet access on
Maybe you are also traveling
with a laptop, and can access the internet from your laptop.
Do you also need internet access on your phone too?
Alternatively, maybe you can
set up a mini Wi-fi hotspot from your laptop, for example, using
excellent Connectify software.
Do you need realtime instant
on-demand internet access?
Maybe your phone will be your
only means of accessing the internet. But do you really need
to be able to get your emails within seconds of them being sent,
even when you're traveling out of the country (and perhaps on
vacation)? Do you need to check your share prices a dozen
times every day? Can you wait until you get back to the
hotel and get a weather forecast on the television in your room?
Sometimes the answer to these
types of questions might be 'yes' (for example - 'Do you need to
be able to access online maps of the cities and towns you are
visiting and get directions to where you wish to go?'). But
if you force yourself to realistically consider the cost
implications of these services, most of which are conveniences
rather than necessities, you might be surprised how much you can
Can Your Phone Use International
Okay, so you've decided that,
on some basis or another, you do want at least some potential
ability to use your phone to access the internet.
Now for the next step. Just because your phone works
in the US does not mean it will work elsewhere in the world,
either with voice or data service.
Earlier parts of this series
consider the issues associated with if your phone will work with
voice services in other countries. Let's now look at the challenges surrounding using your phone's data services -
these being similar to, but not exactly the same, as the
challenges involved in determining if your phone will support
regular voice calling.
The three issues revolve
around what 'generation' of data services your phone supports (and
which generations are available where you travel), what type of
data service the phone uses (compared to those offered in your
destinations) and which frequencies the phone supports for data
(again, interfaced with the frequencies offered in the countries
Let's look at these three
Different Generations of Phone
Let's face it - there's not
really been very much new in terms of voice calling for many
years. A phone call is pretty much a phone call, isn't it.
You dial a number, press send, wait for the other person to
answer, talk, then press End. With almost no variation,
you've been doing the exact same thing since cell phones first
came out 25+ years ago, and almost the same thing on a regular
wired phone too.
But the realm of accessing
data services from a phone has been one of extraordinary evolution
and rapid enhancement. These days most data enabled phones
can offer faster data connection speeds than we had available on
our desktop hard-wired to the internet computers ten years ago.
This is truly extraordinary and massively enabling.
For convenience, the various
quantum leaps forward in terms of wireless data capabilities have
been referred to as 'generations' - first generation, second
generation, and so on. These are usually abbreviated as 1G,
2G, 3G, and - most recently - 4G. There are also some
inbetween products sometimes referred to as, eg, 2.9G or 3.5G -
basically, the bigger the number, the faster the data
Most new data-equipped phones these days
have 3G data capabilities, and the roll out of 3G service areas is
starting to become extensive enough as to make it realistic to
expect to have access to 3G service in most major and moderately
large population concentrations, in most first/second world
New 4G service is just
starting to appear, with very few areas where it is available, and
very few phones supporting the 4G service either. As of the
time of writing (Sep 2011) you should base your expectations and
plans around 3G data services rather than 4G.
As a general rule, phones that
support 3G data will be backwards compatible with earlier and
slower 2G services as well.
Incompatibility Problems Between
Different Data Services
As we've written about in
other parts of this series, there are two major types of voice
calling service - what are referred to as GSM and CDMA.
Think of these a bit
like FM and AM radios - if your radio is FM only, there's no way
you'll be able to receive AM signals and vice versa.
The same is
unfortunately true of data services as well. There are two
major families of 3G data services, and looking ahead to 4G, two
major families of 4G type data services too.
The main families of 3G
wireless data service revolve around two different sets of
acronyms - CDMA/CDMA2000/EVDO for one family, and UMTS/HSUPA/HSDPA
for the other family (plus a bunch of other similar acronyms such
as HSPA and HSPA+ and so on).
The more generally used type
of data service, on a global basis, is that based on the UMTS
technology. The CDMA type service is not as commonly found
elsewhere in the world.
If you have a phone from
Verizon or Sprint, it is more likely that it supports the CDMA
family of 3G data services, and so may not work in other
countries. Of course, this is a bit of a moot point, because
not only will you have problems using the data part of a Verizon
or Sprint phone, you'll probably have similar problems using the
voice part of the phone too.
On the other hand, if you have
a phone from AT&T or T-Mobile, it is probably using the UMTS type
of data service, and this is more likely to be present in
countries you travel to. AT&T and T-Mobile also use the
nearly universally adopted GSM standard for voice calling.
But - wait. There's a third problem to be considered, too.
Differing Frequencies for Data
Again referring back to
earlier parts of the series, voice service on GSM type cell phones
is now commonly found on one or two of four different frequency
bands. The US uses two frequency bands, most of the rest of
the world use a different pair of frequency bands. For your
phone to be assured of working everywhere, it needs to have all
four frequency bands installed.
Unfortunately, there is even
worse frequency fragmentation when it comes to data services.
This is not due to any conspiracy on the part of cell phone
companies to try and lock you in at all, rather it is simply due
to different counties in the world not universally coordinating
how they allocate their radio spectrum frequencies, and so new
services such as high speed data are having to be 'squeezed' into
any spare space that can be found.
In total, there is a
daunting provision for 15 different frequency bands to be used
by UMTS data services around the world. Fortunately, the
reality isn't quite that bad, but it is not good either.
The problem appears in the US
itself, too. The frequency band used by T-Mobile for its
data service is different to that used by AT&T. The data
services are compatible, but the frequencies are not. Think
of this as having an FM radio that only has a limited number of
preset station buttons. The 'preset stations' for AT&T are
different to those for T-mobile, and so if your 'FM radio' (ie
cell phone) doesn't have all the 'buttons' for both the T-Mobile
and AT&T 'stations, it won't work on both services.
In other words, if you buy an
AT&T phone, you probably can't use it on T-Mobile's 3G data
network, even though it probably can work perfectly well on
T-Mobile's voice network (and 2G data network too which uses the
same frequencies as the voice network), simply because
it won't work on T-Mobile's different 3G data frequency band.
And the same if you buy a T-Mobile phone and try and use it on
AT&T's 3G network.
How many 3G frequency bands are
Although there are indeed a
total of 15 different frequency bands for UMTS data service, there are only a few essential
bands to have, which would be, more or less in order of priority :
Band I, 2100 MHz, used by
much of Europe, Asia, Africa, Israel, Oceania, and Brazil
Band II, 1900 MHz, used by
AT&T in the US and Bell Mobility, Telcel, Telus and Rogers in
Canada, and some South American carriers too
Band V, 850 MHz, used by
the same US and Canadian carriers, plus by some carriers in
Australia, NZ, some Central and South America, Hong Kong,
Thailand, Brazil and the Philippines
Band VIII, 900 MHz, used
in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Dominican Republic and Venezuela
Band IV, 1700 MHz, a bit
of an orphan frequency used by T-Mobile in the US (and
Cincinnati Bell Wireless), plus Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and
Videotron in Canada and in Chile
To give a feeling for what a
good phone would offer in terms of multiple frequency bands, an iPhone 3GS gives service on three bands
(850, 1900, 2100 MHz) and an iPhone 4 adds service on a fourth
data band too (900 MHz).
Note that neither supports the
1700 MHz T-Mobile USA frequency band.
How to Minimize Your Data Usage
and Associated Costs When Traveling
Next week we offer a dozen
different ways you can reduce the amount of wireless data your
phone consumes, thereby reducing your costs.
We also talk about different
ways to get lower priced internet data when roaming. With a
one thousandfold difference in cost between high priced and low
priced data charges, this is essential information for all world
Please be sure to come back
for part two, next week.
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16 Sep 2011, last update
02 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.