Ever wonder where old cell phones go to die? Well, earlier this week I found a fair amount of them in a little Internet Café on Vauxhall Road in Westminster, and the rest of them in a little independent phone shop (Handyshop) on Bahrenfelder Steindamm in Hamburg. Old flip phones, candy bars and feature phones by Nokia, Ericsson, LG, Samsung and some of the other usual suspects.
There were a few smart phones running Android and even an iPhone or two. All of the devices in the UK, Germany and France are GSM. If the devices were data capable, the maximum speed was 3G. 4G won’t be fully deployed in these markets for a couple of years yet.
I almost always carry a Verizon iPhone 4 plus another device. It’s usually an Android phone, like the Samsung Charge or the HTC Thunderbolt. Since I was heading to Europe for a week, I thought I’d take an AT&T Motorola Atrix with me. AT&T phones use the GSM (Global System for Mobile) protocol, so it was more likely to work globally.
To be fair, I called Verizon before I left and asked them to turn on my International roaming. This didn’t take long. However, when I asked how much calls and data would be charged in the UK, Germany and France, I could not believe my ears. Dollars per minute for voice, and tens of dollars for data. The fees are so insanely high, the Verizon customer service representative suggested that I turn off the data network on my phone so that I would not accidentally be charged. I’ve had this conversation dozens of times before, but I wanted to give Verizon the benefit of the doubt. Verizon is not a workable solution for American international travelers, if you phone works at all, you must mortgage your house to pay Verizon.
Not to worry! When I got to London, I popped into a Carphone Warehouse, a great chain of stores that sell most major mobile devices on most major carriers. All I needed was a UK SIM card with a decent International plan and I’d have a fully functional Motorola Atrix Android 2.2 FroYo at my disposal. Except for one little detail …
I forgot to get the phone unlocked back in the States, so my AT&T phone could not be used. With a locked phone, there was nothing that Carphone Warehouse could do, except sell me a new phone.
I was crestfallen and depressed as I looked at a bunch of crippled 3G semi-smart Euro-versions of my favorite phones. Did I really want another handset? Just then, one of the sales reps walked over to me and suggested that I visit a small Internet Café on the next block. She said that they would happily unlock (hack) my phone and sell me a legit SIM card.
It was almost as easy as she suggested. The proprietor of the Internet Café did indeed specialize in unlocking phones, but he had never seen a Motorola Atrix. In fact, he didn’t even know how to open it. However, it only took him 20 minutes to obtain the hack codes he needed and sell me a very reasonable Labara SIM card with 10 GBP of talk time. My Atrix was alive and fluent in English, German and French … yeah!
But this is where the story gets tricky. I got a UK phone number. It was the only kind of phone number I could get in the UK. I also signed up for the International plan. So, while in the UK, incoming calls are free and outgoing calls are 4 pence (approx. 7.2 cents US). Text messages are 10 pence to send (about 18 cents US) and free to receive. Calls to the USA are 5 pence (about 9 cents US) per minute. This is not terrible, but it is still more than I pay Verizon or AT&T in the States. I looked at other plans from other carriers including: T-Mobile, Vodafone, Mobi, O2, 3, and Orange found a wide range of fees. The price of calls was vastly different country to country and very much dependent upon where the call initiated from, and where you’re “home” SIM card was from.
There was no plan that stood out as “the obvious one to purchase.” In fact, nothing about the experience was obvious at all. You could spend a lot of money or a ton of money or a small fortune or large fortune, but “spend” was the only common feature of these plans.
At 4.50 USD per MB of data, checking my email would cost me $25-$30 USD daily. Texting would jump from $10 USD/per month to $10-$15 USD per day. Sticker shock is an understatement. Just for goofs, I purchased the full package from Labara (Voice, Txt & Data) on their lowest price pay-as-you-go plan. So far, with normal usage, I’ve spent about $40 USD per day. In contrast, using the phone in the States is about $3 USD per day all in.
We may live in a connected world, but connectivity is still a Wild Wild West show with prices and tariffs galore. When will it all get sorted out? My Telco friends say, “never.” There’s no pressure to make it any less expensive or less confusing. From the carrier’s perspective, it’s perfect the way it is. Perfect for them, that is.