For the better part of July and August I traveled outside the United States for work and some good old-fashioned (and much needed) R&R. It seemed a perfect chance to explore the survival rate of going totally wireless for a month.
If you don’t travel outside the United States often, but subscribe to a U.S. GSM provider (AT&T Wireless, Cingular, T-Mobile), it’s a good idea to check with your provider’s customer-care group to make sure your services are set up for international roaming. If you use a non-GSM operator in the States (Sprint, Verizon) you are not out of luck, but the solution is more complicated and expensive. (More on that in a future column.)
T-Mobile is one of the providers I have used for many years. Usually, the thought of calling customer care is on par with the thought of having a root canal. However, in the last six months or so, T-Mobile has really turned around and seems to be doing a great job (I cannot say that for Verizon or Sprint). They checked my phone service, provisioned my BlackBerry and had me off the phone in less than 10 minutes.
My first stop was London. No matter how many times I head to Europe, I always feel anxious about whether my phone will actually work when I land (I have been burned before). Upon arrival, both my phones worked, and my BlackBerry 7230 started buzzing with overnight e-mail almost immediately. Throughout my nine-city, four-country trip, my BlackBerry worked flawlessly—aside from a five-hour period in London. In fact, my BlackBerry was registered and working on GPRS in several places my phones did not for small periods of time. For U.S. execs traveling to Europe, BlackBerry represents the best example of mobile competence I have seen to date.
Throughout Europe, I spent time on the new 3G UMTS networks. Some places UMTS rocked, others it was no better—and often times worse—than GPRS. Contrary to the press in North America, it seemed to me that UMTS phones were very available, although manufacturer choices are limited and mobile phone prices are high. I also saw a number of PC card–type UMTS modems—some dual-mode with Wi-Fi. Enterprise managers are well advised to sit on the UMTS sidelines for at least 12 months until coverage improves, services become reliable and costs drop.
In Europe, Wi-Fi hot spots are highly visible—there are signs everywhere, and they are easy to use, unlike at home. However, the price for using one felt like extortion—€15 for one hour or €35 for 24 hours. Not only are the prices high, but the norm is to be charged in granular time elements, unlike the U.S. standard of days, months or annually. Like in the States, Wi-Fi hot spots are largely not secure, so don’t leave home without a personal firewall installed—and your Mastercard, as it’s accepted far more than American Express.
Later in the summer I was sailing in the Virgin Islands. Wi-Fi is widely available in many marinas: It’s easy to use, it’s cheap ($6 to $10 per day) and I even saw signs of security (WEP and MAC management). Most of the locals I talked to seemed to use Cingular, although AT&T Wireless and Sprint both have a presence.
Aboard ship, I helped our charter captain “get connected” to Cingular’s GPRS data network. It was his very first experience on the Internet, and it was painful—very painful, as data just zoomed to his laptop at a blistering 1 Kbps. I hooked up my Sprint 1xRTT modem, which has served me well on the mainland, but it hardly did better than the GPRS network. I don’t yet understand the issues, except for maybe the jostling of our boat. I did, however, learn two things: Boat owners like wireless, and marina management is moving to meet the demand by deploying Wi-Fi. And second, mobile operators are missing an opportunity—the coastal maritime market seems like a natural fit for the technologies, but the services are not ready for prime time. Captain Oliver said it best: “I like my phone. Don’t send me an e-mail.” •
Bob Egan is president and CEO of Mobile Competency www.mobilecompetency.com, a Providence, R.I.-based market analyst and consultancy. He can be contacted at or via phone at 401-241-4000