33 Comments

Summary:

We hear far too often of travelers who travel abroad, only to get hit with ridiculous charges from their U.S. carrier for firing up the laptop to get online. I think it’s time to stop these charges which amount to nothing more than legal theft.

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Many of us depend on mobile broadband to provide a connection to the world to get things done. While the monthly cost of 3G data plans in the U.S. will often result in lively discussion, those data plans are downright cheap when you look at international data roaming charges. We hear far too often of travelers who travel abroad, only to get hit with ridiculous charges from their U.S. carrier for firing up the laptop to get online. I think it’s time to stop these charges which amount to nothing more than legal theft.

Take the case of Nilofer Merchant, who recently traveled to Canada on business. She fired up her laptop using the AT&T DataConnect modem and was online for a few hours.  You can guess what happened when her AT&T bill arrived after this one online session. She was stunned to find she’d transferred 707 MB of data for the bargain price of $10,609.

Every time we hear of these cases we often react with no sympathy for the unwary traveler. We all know data roaming charges are expensive so those getting hit with huge charges like Nilofer are getting what they deserve. That’s a callous reaction to a situation that should never be allowed to happen anyway.

Let’s take a look at how much U.S. carriers charge for international data roaming. It’s an eye opening process, I assure you. AT&T charges $.0195/KB, except in Canada where customers get a bargain rate of $.015/KB. Yes, those rates are in KB. Translating that to a cost per MB, a more reasonable unit of data measurement, we see the problem immediately. The Canadian rate works out to a staggering $15.36 per MB! The AT&T roaming charge anywhere else is a whopping $19.97 per MB.

We can’t just pick on AT&T about these exorbitant rates, here are the current international data roaming charges for the four biggest U.S. carriers:

  • AT&T: $0.0195/ KB; $0.015/ KB in Canada
  • Verizon: $0.002/ KB Canada; $0.005/ KB Mexico; $0.02/ KB everywhere else
  • T-Mobile: $10/ MB Canada; $15/ MB everywhere else
  • Sprint: $0.016/ KB everywhere

T-Mobile is the only carrier that specifies its rates in MB, so let’s convert all of them to MB:

  • AT&T: $19.97/ MB; $15.36/ MB in Canada
  • Verizon: $2.05/ MB Canada; $5.12/ MB Mexico; $20.48/ MB everywhere else
  • T-Mobile: $10/ MB Canada; $15/ MB everywhere else
  • Sprint: $16.38/ MB everywhere

Verizon gives special pricing in Canada and Mexico, but overall the four carriers have similar roaming rates. Keeping in mind that some carriers have a 5 GB monthly data cap when used at home, multiply any of the MB rates above by 1,024 (or 1,000 depending on how the carrier does it) to get the price per GB. Now you begin to see how these stories about travelers getting hit by staggering roaming charges keep happening. It’s not that hard to move lots of data in a simple online web session.

The front page of the New York Times web site today is 117kb, according to this page size tool. That would cost you $1.87 to access the site on the Sprint network. When you find an article you like and click on it, then the meter goes ka-ching again, as it continues to do every time you click on something. Think about your typical online session and it’s easy to see how quickly you could rack up thousands in charges at these exorbitant rates.

You incur these charges to access your Gmail online, check your Facebook updates and anything else you might do. Don’t even think about watching any online video while roaming; you’ll need to sell your children to afford that and most countries frown upon the practice. The bottom line is when you travel outside the U.S. leave the 3G at home. You can’t afford to use it, even for short sessions.

I am not usually in favor of regulating any industry, but I wonder if this might be an exception. I can’t fathom any set of circumstances that would justify a carrier charging these types of rates for mobile connectivity. What could possibly justify the charging of thousands of dollars for an hour of normal connectivity?

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  1. I was considering using my Droid in Canada until I saw the rates… Why can’t a reciprocal agreement be made for each county? The only reason is $$$.

    I’m more tied to my phone for data now than voice. With VOIP and similar technologies I can see my phone becoming pure data.

    This price gouging has to stop.

  2. I’m familiar with the huge prices for roaming data. But here’s something that surprised me when I found out about it quite recently.

    Suppose you go abroad and roam onto a network there, and open a data connection. You then go onto the internet. The data connection goes all the way back to your home country, and the connection to the internet is made there, in your home country. It is not made in the country you have roamed to.

    No doubt there’s a good reason for this, but it seems extraordinary to me.

    1. Wow, in effect there is no roaming at all, then. I am very confused.

      1. Your data is still carried over the network you have roamed to. It goes through a ‘tunnel’ (virtual, of course) that stretches back to your home network.

      2. I doubt that data is tunneled to the origin country. B/c if that was the case one wud have to install some VPN software at the client end (on a smartphone which i have never done). And as far as i can tell when i check gmail or any other site the ip that they record is not my home country ip its mostly the IP of the country that i am roaming in to.

  3. sprint has a worldwide data plan option that is prorated at $40 a month for unlimited data.

    I turn this on all the time when I travel to canada with my palm pre.

  4. I once ran up a pretty steep, but not horrendous (in the hundreds, not thousands) data roaming bill while stranded in Toronto last year. T-Mobile actually contacted me to make me aware of the charge, with the suggestion to get a prepaid SIM while traveling and use that in my phone.

    Not only good advice,, but supportive customer service. Of course you need a GSM phone to do this.

  5. this roaming charges is also happening in Europe… in my case with Movistar (spanish company)…although not that expensive…
    Internet: 11,6 €/10MB for the whole world
    Wap: 4,64 €/día for Eastern Europe 46,4 €/MB for the rest of the world.
    Special plan for 50€ a month and a cap of 50MB.. anything outside this 50MB will be charged between 5/10€/MB.

    Way to expensive…
    Cheers

  6. I stay in India and recently i was in HongKong for few days and u wudn’t believe the difference in charges. We don’t have 3G yet but on 2G that we have i pay 10-11$ for unlimited data monthly. While in HongKong i had to pay 12-15$ per MB + VAT. So this kind of ripoff is not limited to US carriers i think this is the case around the world. Best part was i found it very difficult to buy a local SIM with data in HongKong. One can get a simple SIM at every corner but finding it with data was just impossible and so i was forced to use my roaming data plan for push mails.

    1. I thought Hong Kong had lots of free WiFi access.
      The McDonalds there even had it, at least a few years ago.
      Maybe things have changed.

      1. There r lots of free Wifi HotSpots in HK but the problem is u shud be around them and u can’t wait for business push mail to be pushed till u r around a free wifi. Usually when i travel i buy a local Prepaid SIM with data and it works fine, but once in a while u come across a city where prepaid SIM with data is difficult. In India its much better, most of the Prepaid SIMs has data capabilities in built. U just send a SMS and the service gets active, and u r charged by the day, not by the data used.

    2. Hong Kong pre-paid SIM with 30 days unlimited data is HK$168/$20 USD last I was in HK. From 3 and Vodafone IIRC. So it really yanks my chain when I’m roaming on Vodafone for a MB and get charged for a whole months data (at retail, when AT&T paid wholesale (pennies) for it).

  7. Peter Cranstone Monday, March 15, 2010

    One more reason that content that gets delivered to mobile needs to be compressed. There’s a free utility out there for web admins that will do it – mod_gzip.

  8. This is why when I’m out of the country, I turn on airplane mode and then just surf via Wifi. I realize that there are some people who can’t get away with this because of work or another reason, but still.

  9. Here’s one alternative (not bad now, will get better as they add more local countries): http://localanywhere.truphone.com/

  10. In Finland with my carrier: 3,95to 12,95e/MB. Not cheap here either.

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