The true cost of data roaming

24 Jul 2008
00:00

iPhones, as you may know, have been hailed for their ability to get mobile users to surf the Web on a handset. You may also know that this is a bad thing if you're an operator whose backhaul isn't up to speed.

As it happens, it's not so great for international business travelers either. According to sister publication Computerworld Hong Kong, a couple of IT managers in the US have banned employees from buying iPhones (at least for company use) because the data roaming charges are "psycho-expensive":

One executive spent three days in Canada and incurred an $800 data roaming cost, while another spent two weeks in Italy and racked up $5,000 in costs.

It's worth pointing out at this stage that this isn't news. Similar horror stories were told about the first-gen 2.5G iPhones. But more to the point,this problem is in no way limited to iPhones or AT&T, and hasn't been for years. Data roaming is psycho-expensive, period. Even if you're a Vodafone customer roaming on another Vodafone network, or a 3 customer on another 3 network, using data away from home is going to add a couple of zeroes to your phone bill.

That should be no surprise to anyone who uses voice roaming, of course - that's been overpriced for years. But data roaming charges are even more frustrating, because users are billed by the kilobyte, a unit that even tech-savvy people don't really grasp as a billing unit. Even if they did, rates vary from one country to the next. Ever try to sort through the complex menu of roaming rates for voice calls from your local cellco‾ Imagine trying to navigate a similar chart for data roaming when you're not even sure how much data you'll need.

AT&T does offer international data plans for iPhones starting at $24.99, but for that you get 20MB. After that, AT&T charges $0.005/KB in the 65 countries where it has iPhone roaming agreements. Outside of those countries, the per-KB rate goes up to $0.195/KB, which works out to $20/MB. At those prices, visiting telecomasia.net on your iPhone whilst overseas on a non-AT&T affiliated network would cost you a little over $10.

Is 20MB enough‾ Maybe. You won't know until you try. The catch is that AT&T's international plan locks you in for a year, so it's not like you can change your mind after the first month, unless you're willing to pony up a $175 cancellation fee (according to Portfolio.com).

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