GSM handsets for international use by US business travelers
Since we will be discussing international roaming on mobile handsets in this issue, it seems reasonable to discuss here some of the criteria for deciding what kind of handset to get. While we may, in the future, look at specific handsets, for the moment we merely want to give you the philosophical options from which to choose. For international travel you will, for most of the world, be operating in a GSM environment, where either 900 MHz or 1800 MHz systems (or both) are in use. Because of this, in this article we will only be dealing with GSM roaming.
Here in the US our GSM providers at present use 1900 MHz, although 800 MHz will be implemented for those carriers that own a lot of 800 MHz spectrum. In the US we also have (in alphabetical order) AMPS, CDMA, iDEN, and TDMA. ATT and Cingular are moving from TDMA (and AMPS) to GSM.
GSM handsets contain a little smart card, called a Subscriber Identity Module, or SIM, which fits in the handset, and stores all the customer information needed by the mobile phone system. The nice thing about this is that if you get a new handset you merely need to move the SIM from one handset to the other. The only caveat here is that some service providers sell you a handset, but lock it so that it will only work with a SIM from their company, so if you switch service providers your handset may not work with the new SIM. According to their PR company, Cingular will disable this lock on their international handsets, so that the subscriber may use a foreign SIM, if the subscriber calls Cingular in advance. Other service providers no doubt offer similar accommodations.
From the perspective of this article, we distinguish three types of handsets.
• Domestic handsets can be used in the US, but won’t work abroad.
• International handsets work in the US, and offer 900/1800 MHz GSM service for use abroad.
• Overseas handsets won’t work in the US, but offer 900/1800 MHz service for use abroad.
At the present time, the only international handsets are GSM handsets that offer 900/1800/1900 MHz service (and one specialized handset, which we will discuss later, that will support 800/900/1800/1900 MHz).
What about a domestic handset that additionally offers 900 MHz GSM service as the overseas alternative? This was, in fact, adequate a few years ago (and we have owned several 900/1900 MHz handsets), but we feel that 900 MHz without 1800 MHz is simply inadequate today. We do not recommend these handsets. In fact, we strongly recommend against them.
Same number or different number?
The first choice you need to make is whether you wish to use your US mobile number or buy local SIMs overseas. At the moment, the only two US providers who responded positively as actually supporting international roaming and supplying a list of countries and associated rates (see our product review below) were Verizon and T-Mobile (the service provider formerly known as VoiceStream).
Cinguar’s PR firm said that Cingular in fact had international GSM roaming. We note, two things, however. First, in the two months since we queried Cingular about GSM roaming, we have not received a list of countries covered or associated rates, so we can’t actually tell you what countries they cover or do not cover, nor what the costs might be. Second, they say that they have GSM roaming agreements with 200 countries. This is astonishing when you consider that the GSM Association website only lists 182 countries / areas as having GSM, and most service providers don’t have roaming agreements with countries such as Libya, the Sudan, or Cuba.
Assuming you have local mobile service with a GSM provider which has GSM roaming agreements in the countries where you need it, the decision becomes largely a cost / convenience issue.
• If you use your US number, calls are likely to be more expensive both to you and the caller, who may have to make a call to the US to reach you, even if you are right next door (although, if calling from a local cell phone on the same switch, in theory the switch will recognize you and route the call locally). This may not be an issue if your organization is paying.
• If you use the same number, on the other hand, people calling your mobile number will immediately reach you, which is quick and, ignoring pesky time zone differences, convenient). This convenience often justifies the higher cost.
If you use a domestic GSM provider, you need to make sure your account has had international traveling approved, and that there are roaming agreements in these countries in which you are planning to travel. If not, you have little choice but to get a foreign SIM that does work where you will be.
If you use Verizon Wireless, which, in the US, uses CDMA rather than GSM, they will give you a GSM SIM (from Vodafone) with your US number on it for use abroad. Of course, you still need to make sure that there are roaming agreements in the countries in which you will be traveling. If not, you have little choice but to get a foreign SIM.
One handset or two?
If you are using a domestic GSM provider, you have a choice as to whether you want to have an international handset to use both here and abroad, or a domestic handset to use here plus an overseas handset to use for international GSM roaming. (Since most of the world has adopted GSM, we ignore areas in which GSM is not available. Thus, for example, when we are visiting our office in Colombia, we should, in theory, be able to use our US TDMA handset there. In practice we can’t, because there is no roaming agreement, and so we have had to have a local number programmed in as the second NAM.)
This single international handset vs. separate domestic overseas handsets issue involves five factors.
• Are you using a domestic GSM provider? If so, having a single GSM handset which works on all three bands is at least possible. If you do not have a GSM provider with international roaming, or if your GSM provider does not offer international roaming, the point is moot.
• Does your GSM provider have roaming agreements in the countries to which you will be traveling? If not, the point is moot.
• Do you want a local-to-where-you-are-traveling SIM, or to use your own mobile number. If you want to use your own number, then having an international handset may make sense for you. If you plan to use a local-to-where-you-are traveling SIM then having an international handset doesn’t buy you much, and you are better off with an overseas handset while traveling.
• How technically competent are you? If technology is not your thing, then having one handset that you know how to use is a strong benefit, and you might be best served with a single international handset.
• How often do you travel? If you travel abroad once or twice a year, having an international handset offers you no real benefit, and you might as well buy, borrow, or rent an overseas handset when you travel. On the other hand, if you go abroad every month or so, then having an international handset might be worth considering.
What do we, who are technically adept, travel a reasonable amount, and prefer the same number here and abroad, use? In fact, we use two handsets, one for the US and a 900/1800 MHz for use abroad. (Understand that the 1900 MHz circuitry does you no good abroad, and that the 900/1800 MHz circuitry does you no good in theUS.) Somewhere mid-transit we remove the SIM from our tiny domestic handset and put it into our tiny overseas handset.
Until now this seems to us to make the most sense for us – particularly as it allows us to lend out our overseas handsets when not using them.
This may change if we move to the to-be-released-next-year
800/900/1800/1900 MHz encrypted handsets from L-3 Communications.
These handsets will allow us to have extremely secure triple DES (and eventually AES) handset to handset communications among us, as well as secure communications to landline phones equipped with L-3’s Privatel encryptors (see the April 2001 issue of the e-Journal). If keeping your conversations private is a major financial or operational consideration, with cost no object, these encrypted handsets should be carefully considered when they are available.
The usual suspects…
Keep in mind that there are other factors beside the domestic / overseas / international issue to consider: You need to look at all the usual factors, as well. These include:
• Is the handset usable by you? That is to say, is the user interface one with which you can deal? Some manufacturers make great radios that are impossible to figure out.
• Does the handset have the features you need? We recently got a Motorola V-100 handset that was essentially a keyboard for sending text messages. To use it to make calls you needed to plug in an earpiece/microphone. Astonishingly, the designers had chosen not to implement confirmation of delivery, making it totally inappropriate for our needs.
• Will you have sufficient talk and standby time? There is little more frustrating than having the battery run out of power before you run out of talk. At home we use a teeny handset with just enough battery life to get through the day, knowing that it will be in the charger much of the time. When traveling we sometime stick the SIM into a larger handset, whose battery gives 20 hours talk time and a month standby. Make sure battery life fits your needs.
• If you have a car, you should only get a handset for which you can get a professionally installed car kit with speakers and microphone. No matter how cute a handset is, if you own a car you shouldn’t get a handset for which there is no car kit available.