December 15, 2005



Posted: 08.17.05

London Calling ...Or Not

You have just learned that, as part of your restructured role in the company, you’ll be doing some international traveling a few times a year. Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo, here you come! All you need to do is update your passport and figure out how you’ll keep in touch with your colleagues back at the ranch during your stay overseas. No sweat, right? Well, not as far as the passport is concerned.
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By Bill Schu

When traveling internationally, something as simple as making a call from your cell phone becomes a much bigger task. The reason is a tangled web of intrigue involving competitive practices by cell phone providers, various radio bandwidths and different standards adopted by different countries.

Half of the companies in North America use a form of cell phone technology—commonly referred to as code division multiple access (CDMA)—that does not conform to the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) used by a majority of the international community. “You brought your Communicator with you abroad, and all of a sudden it’s a paperweight or a cool little camera,” says Brownlee Thomas, Ph.D., a principal analyst with Forrester Research, “because the phone doesn’t do you any good.”

Cellular services in the U.S. were not created for business, says Thomas, but for pleasure. “As mobile took off, it took off first in Europe and in Asia, because they had all these roaming agreements. In the same country, you could easily roam to other networks on the same standard. In the U.S., you could not. When are you going to see Sprint have a roaming agreement with Verizon? It’s not going to happen.”

Even if your phone uses the GSM standard, there is a lot to do before your first trip, including “unlocking” your phone, finding carriers in your destination country that have roaming agreements with your U.S. provider and ordering the appropriate SIM card. Sound complicated? It can be, so let’s break it down one step at a time.

Will my phone work in [destination]?

Maybe, maybe not. If you have a phone that uses CDMA technology—such as one from major U.S. carriers Verizon Wireless or Sprint PCS—your options are a little more limited than if you have a GSM-based phone. “Depending on your destination, a tri-mode device, which uses 1900MHz/800MHz CDMA and analog technologies and can be used in 40 countries including Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, as well as parts of Asia,” says Stephanie Taliaferro of Sprint mobility solutions and government. "For traveling to Europe, Russia or Africa, they might consider the Sprint PCS International Phone IP-A790 by Samsung, which is a quad-band device with both CDMA and GSM capabilities." Verizon Wireless offers the Samsung a790 in partnership with roaming service of its parent company, Vodafone.

On the IP-A790, users can manually change the mode from CDMA to GSM. Activating it, however, involves having Sprint’s international roaming team add international toll authorization to the customer’s account, which the company does for free. “If a customer did not have this feature and they traveled to France, they could still place calls within France, but they could not call back to the U.S.,” Taliaferro says. “[We can] activate a SIM card for the customer, which allows the customer to keep their same Sprint phone number and have all charges appear on their Sprint bill. Behind-the-scenes translations are being done to convert the Sprint PCS number to a usable GSM equivalent.” All for a fee, of course, totaling around $40. Verizon Wireless offers similar services with the Samsung A790 and the Motorola 840 handset.

If your current service provider is T-Mobile or Cingular (now merged with AT&T Wireless), chances are good you have a GSM phone. Still, using it across the pond may not be easy. Most of the world uses the frequencies of 900 and 1800 MHz for GSM operations. In the U.S. and Canada, T-Mobile uses 1900 MHz, and Cingular uses a combination of 850 and 1900 MHz. In other words, for a phone to work overseas, it must have a band at 900 or 1800 MHz. Phone rental provider Telestial estimates on its Web site that “over 90 percent of the GSM phones sold in the United States are GSM 1900 only and will not function overseas.”

If your phone is a multi-band phone that accepts 900 MHz signals, you’re in luck. If not, your other option is to rent or purchase a tri-band or quad-band phone, which are available for under $200, though higher-end versions can go for twice as much. But you’re still not finished. You will probably need to ask your cell provider to update your account to allow for international roaming. Once you’ve done that, you can then use it in a foreign country as easily as in the United States. And still, buyer beware. The international roaming charges applied by your U.S. account may be larger than you think. Roaming charges from companies such as T-Mobile can cost as much as $1 a minute or more.

“I’m a knowledgeable user,” says Thomas. “I’m going to ask who the cell phone company has agreements with and what the rates are. For occasional travelers, it’s a question of finding out where you’re going and seeing what your current provider can do for you.”

Not So SIM-ple

If you’re unhappy with the roaming charges levied by your U.S. provider, you can shop for a better deal once you reach your destination. GSM phones are controlled by their subscriber identity module (SIM) card, which is essentially the central processing unit of GSM phones. It holds key information such as the user’s phone number and contact list, and it is interchangeable. You can simply purchase a SIM card internationally for around $25 and temporarily replace the current SIM card in your phone. You can then buy time on the SIM card directly from the international provider.

Sounds easy, but if you’ve made it this far into the article, you can probably guess that there’s more to it than that. Most U.S. providers of GSM phones only allow the phone to use a single SIM card, in an effort to discourage users from switching freely among providers. The price of the mobile phone is usually subsidized with revenue from subscriptions, and operators predictably want to try to avoid subsidizing competitors’ mobiles.

Some U.S. providers, such as T-Mobile and Cingular, will unlock the phone for free if the customer has held an account for a certain period. Third-party unlocking services can be quicker, and they typically cost less than $20.
Why Doesn’t the U.S. just Switch to GSM?

GSM phones are used by more than a billion people across approximately 200 countries—good for about 70 percent of the global cellular market. In Europe, a 30-mile train ride will likely take customers into another country. “The rest of the world voted for a lowest common denominator,” says Thomas. “What can we agree to and get going? Every time you turn around in Europe you’re crossing a border, and you’ve got an international call going on.”

CDMA, applied for cellular use by Qualcomm in 1995, has advantages over GSM and other standards in terms of data efficiency and signal coverage. CDMA is more efficient for trans-
mitting both voice and data to the point that, in 1999, the International Telecommunications Union selected CDMA as the industry standard for “third-generation” wireless systems. Over the past several years, Verizon and Sprint have overlaid entire networks on CDMA. They seem unlikely to turn back, given CDMA’s superior technology profile, the likelihood of continued increases in cellular traffic (which CDMA is better equipped to handle), and the fact that there has been little demand from U.S. consumers for
better international capabilities.

Sprint, for one, acknowledges that a resolution to international travel woes is not coming anytime soon. “Though there are not firm plans to standardize at this time, Sprint is involved in this dialogue,” says Taliaferro.

Buy or Rent?

Usually a decision associated with tuxedo selection, but now also a key consideration when deciding how best to use a cell phone overseas. The easy answer is about the same as it is for the tux: How often do you plan to use a cell phone internationally? If it’s for a one-time trip, renting
is relatively easy, though not necessarily inexpensive. Anything beyond a single trip, however, and it might make more sense to buy.

Rental companies such as Cellular Abroad, Planet Omni and Telestial, among others, offer phones and user agreements for many individual countries and for broader travel itineraries that incorporate multiple stops. But contact the company before making any sweeping decisions; options and costs vary widely. Many experts consider renting a phone to be an expensive solution.

Verizon Wireless has a Global Rental program that allows customers to receive calls on their rented GSM handset when U.S. based callers dial the customers Verizon Wireless number.

Although it’s on the CDMA standard, Sprint PCS will sell you a GSM phone for between $149 and $395. The company also offers several devices available for rent, with prices ranging from $35 for a one-week rental to an annual fee of $590. “With this solution,” says Taliaferro, “the customer would have to turn off their CDMA device when they were abroad and only turn on their GSM device. A drawback to choosing this solution is being required to carry two phones.”

Odd as it seems, carrying two phones might be the best bet for U.S. consumers who want the best coverage here and the easiest solution internationally, at least until “compromise phones” that incorporate both CDMA and GSM technology become more widely available. Or, you can simply see what your current cellular provider has to offer.

“Call your cell company to find out if they have a roaming arrangement where you’re going, and ask how they can accommodate you if you have a CDMA phone and you’re going to a GSM country,” says Thomas. A little slice of logic in a mad world. •

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