U.S. travellers have long wondered why making a mobile phone call or sending a text in a foreign country is so expensive. And if your phone downloads data while you’re on vacation — app updates or stuff from the web — forget about it: The bill upon your return can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars. T-Mobile says such costs can reach $US1,000 a day if you’re not careful.
Thus for years, Americans have ventured abroad with their smartphones in “aeroplane” mode, so that they can’t do anything, turning the cellular signal on and off only briefly to make crucial calls or texts.
Oddly, many European wireless carriers have offered free or cheap calling and texting in foreign countries for years.
Now T-Mobile is offering something that sounds almost too good to be true. At a recent press event featuring the singer Shakira, T-Mobile said its customers will now get:
- “Unlimited” data and texting in more than 100 countries.
- For $US10/month, U.S. customers will get a global flat rate of 20 cents/min. for voice calls when roaming in those 100 countries.
- Free calls to landlines in 70 countries.
Previously, a phone call from the U.K. to the U.S. cost about $US1.49 a minute on my T-Mobile plan. Texts were 50 cents each. On a recent trip to Britain, for instance, I starved my phone of access to the internet and wireless coverage, and made only seven brief phone calls and three texts. The privilege cost me $US64.
Under T-Mobile’s new plan, the same thing would cost about $US8.60.
The catch seems to be that the “unlimited” data will arrive at 2G speed — very slow in a 4G universe. Not enough to watch video, probably. But for most travellers, it’s the calls and texting that are the crucial bit.
T-Mobile CEO John Legere is hoping the plan will spark price competition among American carriers. Let’s hope.