After 40 years working in telecommunications with the last 15 in wireless services (mobile), you would think I would know more about international roaming charges. Well, I may understand the enabling technology, but how the roaming charges are calculated is still a mystery. My experience during a recent trip to South America demonstrates my ignorance.
Before leaving on a month long trip to South America, I knew we would need some kind of international roaming package. Therefore, I visited an AT&T office to discuss international roaming options. After talking to the agent, we agreed to a limited “roaming package” that contained both voice and data for my iPhone. I told the agent that we would be on a cruise ship and visiting several countries during our trip. No problem, I agreed to a purchase an international roaming package for about $120. We knew that we needed to limit our voice and data usage during our trip.
The day before our trip, I called AT&T to activate the roaming service for one month. Again, the agent (different agent) asked if we would be on a cruise ship and visiting different cities. After our conversation, the agent activated our international roaming service.
The first few days in Argentina, we controlled our data use and didn’t make any calls. We then boarded the ship and left for Montevideo. Much to my surprise, I received a text message from AT&T telling me that our international data use had exceeded $300. Since I didn’t have a data package (per the message), the rate was $28 a KB – note the KB, not MB. Wow! How did that happen? Most of the time, the iPhone was left in “airplane mode” (no GSM traffic) and WiFi enabled. This allowed me to use the phone while in the hotel (free WiFi). Needless to say, the phone was then turned off!
While in Montevideo, we stopped at a café with free WiFi and “chatted” with AT&T via their website. The agent on line told me that I had a “cruise ship only” package that gave me a reduced rate on the Celebrity Cruise ship, but not from a land-based cellular operator. I was told there is no single roaming plan that covers both maritime service and land based operators! In addition, the ship can only provide service when it is more than 12 nautical miles from shore. When the ship approaches shore, the shipboard telephone switch is disabled and mobile phones will attach to a land-based operator. The only way to tell when the phone changes carrier is by reading the abbreviated name of the operator on the screen. User friendly, not!
For the remainder of our 28 day trip, we left the mobile phone is “airplane mode” and used it at “WiFi hotspots.” When we got home, we received international roaming charges in excess of $300. The charges trickled in for the next two months. After reading the fine print in the AT&T agreement with Celebrity, I discovered the maritime agreement is only for the Caribbean. I don’t think Argentina and Uruguay are considered part of the Caribbean…
Now, the good news: AT&T wrote off all the international roaming charges! Thanks, AT&T, you kept a customer!
The moral of this story, check with your mobile service provider before you leave the country, don’t assume anything, and understand what you are buying. If you need to use the phone for voice and data, buy a roaming package, but be sure you know what the package covers – and where it is covered. A smart phone sends/receives a lot of information and the data rates are excessive. You need a roaming package. Or, leave the phone in airplane mode.