International Data Roaming Charges — Legal Theft

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 (s 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?

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Metered Mobile Data is Coming and Here’s How