Is 2G fast enough for free global roaming?

T*Mobile made a bit of a splash this week, announcing that as of the end of the month customers on their Simple Choice plans will no longer pay data roaming fees in roughly 100 countries across the globe. SMS service will also be free/included in those countries and voice roaming will be capped at 20 cents per minute. Yup, free global roaming. As someone who travels internationally a lot those numbers – particularly the zeros – are pretty darn appealing. But, like with most awesome news, there is a catch. The free service is going to be at 2G speeds. That’s EDGE or GPRS, depending on where you are. In other words not very fast. But is it fast enough?


I think the answer might be yes on this one. I find myself roaming on international networks a fair amount and for some reason my BlackBerry really chews through battery life when I’m on 3G so I typically force it down to 2G when I’m on the road. It is not fast at all. But it is quite functional. I can post photos to Twitter or Facebook, do basic searches and otherwise generally do the things I want to be able to do when I’m wandering about in some far flung town. Other actions – streaming media or sharing full-size photos – will be painful or simply not work. I get that. I don’t do much of that when I’m out wandering around; I save those actions for WiFi in the hotel or at a restaurant/café along the way.

For people who want higher speeds there are “power packs” available to buy at rather reasonable rates:

  • 1 day and 100MB for $15
  • 1 week and 200MB for $25
  • 2 weeks and 500MB for $50

Those will let you consume at the highest speeds supported wherever you are and fail back to 2G when the limit is reached.

One other aspect of the play I find interesting is T*Mobile CEO John Legere’s explanation for why they’re doing this. In short, he says that international roaming fees are nearly all profit and since his company doesn’t make much money from them anyways it isn’t really such a huge risk to cut the price and hope to make it up with new customers joining and paying for service but not using a ton of it. From a CNET story on the news:

T-Mobile is able to pull off this move because, Legere conceded, it didn’t really make a lot of money on its international business. He called it a “multi-multi-billion-dollar revenue stream” but said T-Mobile didn’t have much of a hand in it. Most customers will to pay the higher rates are either well off, or working for companies willing to foot the bill. Either way, they’re more likely to be customers of AT&T or Verizon Wireless.

Of course, the business customers aren’t likely to settle for 2G speeds when roaming so this might not work out so well in that regard.

The list of countries included in the program, according to engadget is:

Aland Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Christmas Island, Colombia, Costa Rica, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Easter Island, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Faeroe Islands, Finland, France, French Guiana, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Martinique, Mexico, Moldova, Montserrat, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sint Maarten, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Martin, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Suriname, Svalbard, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vatican City, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zambia

There are a few things holding me back right now, despite how awesome this sounds. First, it would mean switching to T*Mobile for service at home. And while they announced nationwide LTE coverage as part of the same event I don’t really believe them. Performance in NYC has historically been pretty miserable based on just about every conversation I’ve ever had with a user on that network dating back more than a decade. That’s enough to make me balk. Plus there’s the whole momentum thing. I’m grandfathered in on a sweet deal from VZW, one they no longer offer, so my flat-rate data usage is actually global, not just (admittedly large number of) select countries. The downside of my situation is that if I want a new phone I have to pay the full, unsubsidized price. Hence I’m still using a BlackBerry.

Yes, this move is very much a marketing ploy. Throw “free” out there a lot an see just how many people you can convince to switch or try the service and then don’t hate you because it is too slow when they travel. Or maybe it is the right amount of data at the right price for basic consumption. Buying a local SIM card is rarely too hard, though the rules vary wildly by country and it takes time. For quick visits it is often more of a pain than it should be. Dealing with slower speeds to avoid that for 1-2 days in a new place would be pretty nice.

For free it just might be perfect.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I had an old Nexus one that was only capable of 2G speeds in certain international markets, so I had to make do. I was shocked how usable it was. It is much better than 1G and better than intermittent 3G/4G service I have with Verizon in some areas.

    2G loads steadily, which is the key. I don’t like it load quickly one minute and then really slow the next. As long as I can expect it to load in 20 seconds all the time, I’m all set.

    If it is too slow, there is always hotel wifi or cafes with free wifi you can use if you need a bit more speed.

  2. This is great news and I am curious to see what ATT, VZ, and Sprint does in the coming months. Hopefully, they will start offering something similar.

  3. This is excellent news and will, I hope, introduce some much needed price competition into the US cellphone market, which generally has ridiculously high fees and ridiculously little flexibility. T-Mo’s offerings get better and better for those who live in areas where it is strong.

  4. Although there is justified skepticism of how much it might change an individual users’ experience, I think observant consumers will notice that T-Mobile’s untethering of service and device together with the simplified financing did instigate a market shift. Both VZW and ATT responded with their own, slightly modified, versions because consumers responded so well to a pro-consumer move.

    Part of me wonders how much of this pro-consumer experimenting by a struggling T-Mobile after the blocked merger with ATT is influencing DOJ’s review of LCC-AMRQ merger. Granted T-Mobile is not going to threaten the dominance of the two behemoths, but it seems to be doing a good job of keeping them honest as far as the marginal consumer.

  5. For a leisure traveler this means they will be able to run Google maps on their iPhone for free. 2G speeds should be sufficient enough for allowing people to walk around a city and navigate using a maps program, use Google translate, pull up wiki travel pages for recommendations, perhaps even fast enough to do a voice call via Skype.

  6. I dunno…EDGE is often downright unusable on the iPhone. I think it works OK on the Blackberry because RIM does some data compression on its end, but on full-featured phones using an uncompressed data stream, it can be an exercise in frustration to even load basic mobile-formatted web pages. (And no, you will not be able to maintain a voice call on EDGE–it’s hit or miss even on 3G.)

    But this is a HUGE step in the right direction, and I love the candor of the CEO. I wonder if a journalist or someone will corner the AT&T or Verizon CEOs sometime in the near future and ask them point-blank to explain their roaming charge stances in light of the TMO CEO’s admission that it’s all profit.

  7. tmobile has a couple very low price cell plans. it might be worth getting a tmobile phone for the out of country service.

  8. For reference, all T-Mobile Simple Choice postpaid plans feature “unlimited talk + text + web.” However, if you exceed your paid data allocation the speed slows down. Data allocations: 500MB for $50/month, 2.5GB for $60, “Unlimited” (with no asterisk) for $70.

    Device cost is not included.

    CallerID (“Name ID”) adds $4 per month.

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