When in roam...

Using a data-enabled cell phone, like the iPhone, in a foreign land could leave you with a huge bill if you're not careful

January 13, 2009|By David Sarno | David Sarno,Los Angeles Times

Not long after I returned from a recent trip to Canada, I was surprised to find a $400 cell phone bill in the mailbox. This seemed odd because I'd made only two phone calls when I was there, the longer one for 15 minutes.

But when I looked closer at the breakdown, I saw what was going on. It wasn't I who'd been making dozens of long-distance calls back to the States - it was the phone itself. While I thought my iPhone was sitting "unused" in my jacket, it had been constantly checking my e-mail for 72 consecutive hours.

You see, using a data-enabled cell phone in a foreign land has become a little like falling asleep on a train in Naples - if you're not careful, you could end up with empty pockets. If you ever have, you know the feeling.

"Shock, fear, panic," said Mike Cottmeyer, a software consultant in Suwanee, Ga., referring to an $800 iPhone data bill he'd been hit with after visiting Toronto for a few days last year. "It kind of makes you sick to your stomach."

The roaming rip-off stems from a sad new kind of Catch-22: With all the contracts, agreements and stipulations we've signed on for, there's more fine print than ever and less time to read it. And like a high-schooler's nightmare, if you fail to memorize everything, you could be in big trouble.

The iPhone is more laptoplike than most other phones, so its users are more likely to use them for big graphical Web pages. But the price of roaming data isn't unique to the iPhone, so anyone with a Web-enabled phone who is unsure about roaming costs should do a little homework before they go out of the country.

For an idea of how easy it is for travelers to rack up a nauseating data bill, consider that most phone companies charge roaming customers about 2 cents per kilobyte. How much is that? Well, your average e-mail message might be 10 kb. So that's about 20 cents per e-mail. Not instantly fatal.

Well, what if someone sends you a message with a snapshot in it - that might run a megabyte or two (about 2,000 kb). So while the picture of your nephew in his first snowstorm might be priceless in one sense, in another it just cost you 40 bucks.

But even that is child's play. The real action comes when travelers use their phones to surf the Web or watch videos - both of which can consume thousands of times more data than checking e-mail. The blogosphere is littered with ghastly tales of "bill shock" over such unanticipated fees, like the American who visited London for two weeks, bringing his Web-enabled iPhone, not a laptop, for all computing needs. The price tag on that bit of light traveling? $3,000.

Then there was the Briton who, while vacationing in Portugal, decided to download an episode of Prison Break to his cell phone. The guy ended up owing close to $60,000. Most of the really galactic fees end up being partially refunded. When I complained, mine was, too - but it took me 20 minutes of arguing with the customer service rep, more than most people would likely bother with.

"You get this false-positive feeling of comfort," said Gerry Purdy, an Atlanta-based mobile communications analyst for the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. "You get off the airplane and say, 'Hey, the phone works? And my e-mail's coming? That's great.' "

But unwitting consumers and Web columnists don't realize they've been silently shifted to a new set of much more expensive "roaming" rates that are, as Purdy put it, "almost insane."

You might wonder if sending all this data around the world costs the telecoms that much money. But consider your home broadband connection, a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet that allows you to scarf down as many Web pages, photos, songs and movies as you can in one month. All for about $40 - about the same as what you were charged for that pic of your nephew in the snow.

If you had to pay that kind of price for every byte of your monthlong smorgasbord of home broadband, you'd probably be paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. So wherefore the discrepancy?

AT&T, the only telecom that offers the data-hungry iPhone, won't say whether the roaming rates reflect the real cost of keeping users connected internationally. A spokesman wrote only that "roaming fees are established by the carriers whose networks are available to our customers while traveling abroad" and that "AT&T must pay these fees to the carrier per the agreement."

This response sidesteps the rather obvious fact that AT&T is itself an international service provider - charging roaming fees to visiting foreigners - and therefore knows precisely how much or rather how little data transfer costs.

For a hint at the real answer, we can look to the European Union, which recently agreed to caps on both the price of text messages - about 14 cents U.S. - and the price of data: 1 euro, or about $1.50, per megabyte, more than 10 times less than what AT&T and other U.S. telecoms charge for roaming.

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