FCC Advises Travelers on International Wireless Access

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 widely.

- 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 world phones.

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

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...