The Federal Communications Commission is offering suggestions to U.S. citizens traveling overseas on how to access wireless communications without incurring excessive charges. Wayne Rash also offers advice to international business travelers on secure and economical mobile data access.
The Federal Communications Commission has launched an
effort to help U.S.
travelers cope with the cost and complexity of traveling outside the United
States with their wireless devices.
To do this, the FCC has designated the week of June 21 as
"Wireless World Travel Week," and has issued a set of suggestions to
help travelers keep mobile phone costs under control. While the guidelines are
intended for general travel, they also apply to business travelers. And there
are a few other things that business users should keep in mind.
The FCC will be releasing information for wireless device
users for the entire week. The details for each day's events can be found on the FCC Website.
A few years ago, issuing guidelines for business
travelers might have seemed unnecessary, but times have changed. For the last
few years, business travel has been in a significant decline. But now that it's
picking back up, there are many people and many companies that simply haven't
had to deal with international mobile phone use before.
In addition, the selection of devices has changed, the
rate plans have changed and the carriers have changed their service policies.
So even if you've traveled on business with your cell phone in the past, it
won't hurt to check to make sure what you knew then still applies.
First, the FCC's advice:
Check with your wireless provider. You need to do this, if only to let your
provider know that you're planning to use your phone outside the United
States. It's also a good idea to find out
the rates for calling from the country where you'll be. Those rates can vary
Look for alternatives to using your regular phone and plan. If you have a GSM
phone (meaning AT&T or T-Mobile in the United
States) you can use a foreign SIM
(Subscriber Identity Module) card if you have an unlocked phone. Both carriers
will tell you how to unlock your phone depending on your phone and your
contract. This can save huge amounts of money in some countries. If you have
another carrier, look at either renting a phone or buying a prepaid phone once
you get to your destination.
Internet calling is cheap. You can avoid high phone charges by using Skype or
another service instead of your mobile phone to call back to the United
States. Some phones will work with WiFi and
a few will allow voice calls over WiFi, which can also be cheap.
World phones can be cheaper. But the phones themselves can be expensive, so you
should have a compelling need to justify the cost. Both Sprint and Verizon have
phones that will work globally using GSM outside the United
States and both AT&T and T-Mobile sell
But there are other factors that are more specifically
important to business users that the FCC didn't mention. They include things
like security and network access that aren't necessarily important to casual
travelers. Things to bear in mind are:
Make sure you have data support overseas. Not every 3G device sold for U.S.
use will work outside the country and not every data plan supports roaming
outside the United States.
You need to check with your carrier to find out for sure.
Be careful about using your smartphone in some countries. Your BlackBerry,
iPhone or Android phone can be a tempting target for theft, but it can also be
a tempting target for invasion by the government in some areas. The Chinese
government, for example, is widely believed to make it a practice to download
the contents of virtually every smartphone that enters the country as soon as
it's turned on. In case you wondered how intellectual property seems to slip
away so easily, this is one way.
Bring a spare phone. You know that old Motorola Razr that you have in your desk
drawer from when you upgraded to an iPhone? Bring it along. Use it either for
your foreign SIM card or instead of your
smartphone for routine needs. It's unlikely to have any data worth stealing,
and the phone itself is unlikely to be worth stealing for its own sake.
Make sure you check all of the rates and restrictions for your phone and your
plan. You will likely find that there are separate charges for voice, data and messaging
and that there may be limits to usage before another charge kicks in. Again, you
might find that renting (or even buying) a phone at your destination is cheaper
than using one you already have.
Knowing the actual fees and restrictions involved can
make a dramatic difference to your travel costs. I found on
a trip to St. Petersburg, for example, that my U.S. T-Mobile plan would
cost me $5 per minute (it's the same for other U.S. carriers there) just for
voice service. Buying a Russian SIM card
cost $5 and included enough minutes for my entire trip.
While there are a lot of costs involved with business travel, many of which
can't be avoided, it still pays to know in advance what they'll be. And while
the FCC's suggestions are meant for casual travelers, they can also be very
useful for business travelers.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.