Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Get Yourself Connected - Voice

In the first post of this series, I said I would split my posts on voice and data communications, because both are quite large subjects.

In this post we're going to cover voice comms while travelling.

First, remember our priorities:
  1. Voice comms, in and out, local, national, and international, mobile and fixed
  2. Medium speed data while mobile
  3. High speed data periodically
  4. Mobile device data
  5. Laptop data

Now, I have set my top priority as local, national, and international voice communications. That focuses my choices quite a lot; though only narrowing them a little bit.

First Priorities, then Technologies.

As I said in the introduction, "The first thing you need to know, is that the technologies available to you depend on where you're starting from, and where you're traveling to. There are a lot of possibilities here, and they're pretty much dictated by your geography."

Well... there is one major exception to that geography rule...

Satellite communications.

Ok, so first, let's limit the scope of the more detailed parts of this discussion to areas where local and mobile communications infrastructure is in place. If you're going to be traveling where there are no phone lines and no terrestrial mobile networks, you have to go to either long range radio, or satellite comms; and the detail of all that is a MUCH larger topic than I want to cover right now. We're just going to skim it.

Let me just say that in general, commercially available personal satellite communications are expensive, bulky, slow, poor quality, complicated, and unreliable.

Most of the above factors but expense can be mitigated to some degree or another with sufficient application of cash of course; but that just makes an already expensive proposition moreso.

Sattelite terminals (phones) can cost well over $1000 for even simple models, and actual usage charges can vary from as little as under $1 per minute, to as much as $15 per minute.

... but... if you really need it, you really need it; and cost becomes secondary.

Generally speaking Inmarsat is the most reliable service by far; but you pay for it. It has been around for 30 years, and it works pretty much everywhere except the poles, and in deep valleys and tunnels. It is also the most expensive major service, uses the most expensive bulkiest, equipment, and is either the slowest network (at "normal" prices), or the fastest, but most expensive network (at 5-10 times the price).

Generally speaking Iridium is in the middle for both cost and reliability; but their equipment is, frankly, crap. It is TOUGH crap though. Their availability has been slightly spotty over time, their call quality is all over the map, their data netowrking is slow and expensive, and on any given day there is a fair chance that they will just go out of business with no warning. Also, they are not maintaining their satellite constellation, nor are they adding new capacity, so they are at this point a dead end service.

Globalstar provides an infuriatingly inconsistent service. Although they provide excellent coverage geographically, as well as relatively high speed networking; their satellites are unreliable (they lofted a bad batch of S-band amplifiers in their primary constellation), and the band and encoding they are using seems to be impacted more seriously by environmental factors. So when it works, it works great, but service is simply unavailable, or seriously degraded, far more frequently than other networks.

Globalstar has three things going for them though: They are the cheapest by far (including the cheapest equipment), they offer the highest speed data networking at relatively reasonable rates (there are faster networks, they are just WAY more expensive), and they are the only major satellite phone company launching more satellites and adding capacity to their infrastructure (InMarSat is launching replacement capacity, but not expanding).

Theoretically Globalstars next full constellation of satellites will be in place in 2010, and that will eliminate the problems they've been having. Unfortunately, the rockets they're using for their satellite launches keep blowing up; so, who knows.

The other major curveball, and certainly the most irritating geographic restricting factor is...

Japan and Korea.

Let's get Japan and the ROK out of the way right away; because the answer there is simple, but irritating.

As an international traveller, you have very few options. Japan and the ROK use a proprietary CDMA based technology that isn't used anywhere else in the world; and up until recently no carrier offered any other type of service.

Generally speaking, if you travel to Japan, you will need to buy or rent a local phone. If you are traveling from Japan, you will need to buy a local phone wherever you are going (with one exception noted below).

The only good news is, the phones available locally in Japan and the ROK are excellent, and generally offer more features than do phones in other markets.

...Of course those features often include things like buying from vending machines, and mobile TV; which probably aren't all that compelling to a business traveler.

There is one exception to this however; in that the carrier Softbank, is now offering 3G only voice and data services over UMTS. So if you have a Quad band UMTS phone, you MAY be able to get service with it in Japan. They even use SIM cards; unfortunately as far as I know they don't sell SIM only packs or prepaid service.

The news is SLIGHTLY better for Japanese users traveling abroad though; because if you buy a quad band 3G phone for use with softbank, you will finally be able to use your phone on networks outside of Japan (presuming they support UMTS voice); whereas before they had no options.

Unfortunately, as 3G only, no matter where you travel (including in Japan) you're looking at a much more limited coverage area, with a lot more dead zones, and difficulties, than if you used a standard local CDMA carrier; so at this time I can't really recommend this route, and I think buying or renting a local phone is still the way to go.

Basically, with Japan out of the way, the entire rest of the world can be divided in two:

The US, and "Everywhere Else".

GSM is the world standard for mobile phones, as of 1991; and most countries around the world excepting Japan and South Korea, but including the US, have extensive GSM coverage.

You can visit the official GSM associations coverage map site here: http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml to get full maps of all GSM coverage around the world.

It is important to note that there are five radio frequency "bands" that GSM can operate on (technically there are 14, but 5 are used for mobile voice), 1900mhz, 1800mhz, 900mhz, 850mhz, and 450mhz; though the 450mhz band is very rarely used.

You will sometimes see these bands referred to as GSM-1900, GSM-1800, GSM-900, GSM-800 and GSM-400; even though technically those are not their exact frequencies.

The same communications technology is used across all five bands, but each one requires a different radio band available to it. Most phones are at least dual band, and over the past few years many phones have gone to tri-band or even quad band (I don't know of any phones that cover all five bands... in fact I don't know of any that cover the 450mhz band at all).

In the U.S. dual band GSM phones cover the 1900mhz, and 850mhz band. Tri band phones usually add the 900mhz band. Quad band phones usually at the 1800mhz band.

In Europe, dual band phones usually cover 900mhz and 1800mhz, add 1900mhz with tri-band, and 850mhz with quad band.

South and Central America generally follow the American convention (except for Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala), Africa and Asia generally follow the European convention.

Basically, quad band should work everywhere on every network (at least those that allow it), and tri-band should work to at least a limited degree almost everywhere. If a phone is advertised as a "world phone" it is probably quad band, but may be a tri-band, so be sure to check closer.

For the world traveler, the best part about GSM, is that it is portable. All GSM carriers around the world use the same basic technology; and in general GSM phones can be transferred from network to network using a small chip called the SIM card (that stands for subscriber information module); provided the handset hasn't been specifically locked to a particular network (or that the user has unlocked the handset).

The SIM card allows every mobile subscriber to make their phone number independent of their phone. If your battery is dead, your phone is broken, or if your phone won't work on the network you have wherever you are at that moment (because it doesn't have that radio band); you can take the SIM card out, and swap it into a phone that IS working, and make and receive calls and text messages on your own account, with your own phone number, without changing anything on your service providers end (though roaming charges may apply).

Apart from coverage, this one feature makes GSM far more useful to the traveller in general than other mobile communications technologies.

Unfortunately, in the US, GSM is not the primary mobile communications technology. In the US, there are two basic technologies available for mobile voice services: GSM, and CDMA.

Though Europe adopted GSM as a single continent wide mobile standard in 1991, and much of the world decided to follow suit, the U.S. has never had a single standard. In fact up until recently every major carrier had their own network that often could not interoperate with other carriers networks; and still today, most mobile handsets cannot be used on another carriers network (though this is an adminsitrative restriction not a technical one).

U.S. carriers also generally have very restrictive contracts, that strictly limit what devices and applications you can use on their networks.You may only use an approved handset on a carriers network, in an approved way etc... etc...

If it sounds like a mess, it is. It's the primary reason why mobile phone adoption rates in the U.S. have historically been much lower than in the rest of the developed world; and why our mobile technology and infrastructure are so far behind, in comparison to most of Europe, Australia, and Japan.

In fact, in terms of mobile infrastructure, technology, and services available in the U.S. we're actually behind India, much of Africa, almost all of Europe and almost all of Asia. That includes countries that we consider third world.

The only region of the world we are clearly ahead of in this is Latin America (well... the corruption and unreliability in Africa put us ahead there too, but THEORETICALLY African networks could be better than ours... if it weren't Africa); and that's mostly because they followed our lead on mobile infrastructure, but did it worse. Even that is changing however, as since 2001 mobile carriers have been racing to build out as much GSM coverage as they can; to the point that even in some of the poorest, and most rural countries in the world, mobile phone service in urban areas is better than that in the U.S.

So, what's world traveler to do?

The picture in URBAN areas, everywhere around the world, outside the US, Japan, and South Korea is simple; buy GSM. If there is working mobile service where you're going, it will probably be GSM.

As I noted above, Japan and South Korea use their own proprietary systems; you'll just have to buy local (or take your chances with 3G voice coverage).

The picture in Latin America and Africa (and to a lesser extent Australia) is pretty muddled; because either there is GSM service, which is spotty to non-existent outside of major urban areas in most countries; or everything is completely incompatible with everything else.

Generally speaking, GSM is a good bet so long as you're staying urban; and if you aren't, you'll either have to buy local, use satcom, or live without connectivity.

The good news is, if there is any kind of service at all, there are usually relatively low cost prepaid phones available.

In the U.S. there are only two GSM mobile carriers, AT&T (which was a TDMA provider, but purchased/merged with Cingular and then converted to entirely GSM), and T-Mobile; and unfortunately, their coverage is somewhat limited outside of major urban areas and interstate highway corridors. This is primarily because GSM is relatively new to the U.S; only arriving here in a limited way in 1994; and extensive network buildout did not begin until 2001.

As time goes on, GSM coverage is rapidly improving; however the U.S. is a HUGE country, and it will be years before GSM coverage matches that of the other major technology, CDMA.

As of right now, there are 3 major (and a lot of minor and regional) carriers in the U.S. using CDMA: Verizon, Sprint-Nextel, and Alltel (and Sprint is near bankruptcy, and Alltel is being acquired by Verizon).

As I said, up until just a few years ago, they all maintained their own networks that had limited, if any, interoperability; but they have all recently switched to a CDMA technology that, at least, allows roaming across all of their networks.

GSM users are used to having transparent coverage wherever they go. This is a relatively new phenomenon for CDMA users... and in fact still has some issues, mostly to do with the way the carriers administer their systems rather than the underlying technologies (Sprint users often report difficulty roaming on Verizon networks for example).

CDMA phones are all carrier locked; and cannot be transferred across networks. In order to activate a CDMA phone, it's ESN/MEID/IMEI (which are hard coded into the phone, though technically they do not have to be; that's by carrier choice) have to be entered into the carriers system and linked into your account and subscriber information; usually by telephoning them.

So, what should a U.S. subscriber do if they want to travel to say, Europe?

If you are a U.S. subscriber, and you know that you will be traveling from the U.S. to Europe (or most of the rest of the world), your best bet is to buy a quad band GSM phone from T-Mobile or AT&T, and unlock it.

Then when you get to Europe you can just pick up a local SIM card, pop it in your phone, and be good to go.

You might be wondering why you would have to unlock the phones, since AT&T (through carrier network share agreements) and T-Mobile operate all over Europe?

Well, as usual, U.S. mobile providers are shafting their customers, by charging international out of network roaming rates on calls made on any network, even those owned by their parent companies.

That means you get charged the full $5-$6 a minute rate (or more - it may have gone up again recently) if you're a U.S. t-mobile subscriber traveling in Germany.

Worse still, the locking scheme T-mobile and AT&T use in the U.S. is incompatible with the scheme they use elsewhere, so you cannot use a local pre-paid SIM card in your phone unless you unlock it.

Thankfully, for most phones, unlocking is easy.

If you are a t-mobile customer they will unlock your phone on request, after you have been with them for at least 90 days. Just call up their customer service, tell them you'll be traveling outside of t-mobiles coverage areas, and they'll send you the unlock code for your specific phone within a few days.

AT&T can be more troublesome, they want to charge you money to unlock your phone, if they'll do it at all. How much they charge depends on what model of phone it is, and how long you've had it. For example, they won't unlock any phone within 6 months of you starting your contract with them, or receiving an "upgrade"; they won't unlock an iPhone 2G at all, and it's $200 to unlock an iPhone 3G.

Eventually, except for the iPhone, even AT&T will unlock your phone for free; once you've paid off a certain amount of the subsidy you got for the phone in the first place (usually $100 to $200 dollars for signing up for a contract); but you may have to hassle them to get them to do it.

Also, you may be able to get them to unlock your phone by calling up their international customer service line and telling them you will be travelling to Europe and need to use a foreign SIM.

Many phones can also be unlocked with special software, and sometimes a special cable, that you can buy over the internet. Some can even be unlocked with "secret" codes, that you can also buy over the internet.

Oh and of course you can always buy an unlocked phone in the first place; though you'll usually pay $100-$300 over the service providers price for the phone, and there may be no warranty.

It is very important to note, although carriers don't LIKE you unlocking your phone, it is PERFECTLY LEGAL for you to do so; and carriers will not terminate your contract for unlocking your phone, or for using an unlocked phone.

If for some reason you take your phone abroad with you, but don't want to swap SIM cards (for example you don't intend to make or receive calls, but you want to keep your standard phone number active in case someone needs to call you in an emergency) you need to remember to disable your voicemail, and any data services before you leave; or you're going to get hit with hefty roaming fees.

What's that? You get roaming fees even if you don't answer the calls?

Oh yes my friends, yet another example of the carriers shafting the customer. When you recieve a call but don't answer it, the call is routed to you internationally, then routed back to your home network to your voicemail mailbox... for which the carrier will charge you DOUBLE the international roaming charge per minute; once for the incoming call, once for the transfer to voicemail.

Trust me, just get a local SIM card, and set up call forwarding back home. You can set your home network mobile number to forward calls to a landline (or even better a VOIP line), and then have that line set to forward calls to whatever your number is wherever you are traveling. It's more complicated, but you will be able to recieve calls on your home network mobile number at a FAR lower cost (typical $0.10 to $0.50 per minute rather than $5 per minute or more).

What if I can't or don't want to use AT&T or T-Mobile?

If you're a U.S. subscriber, and you're already in a contract with someone other than t-mobile or AT&T, you're still reasonably well off; because Europe has a very different mobile phone culture than here in the U.S.

Whereas here, the dominant market condition is long term contracts; throughout most of Europe, most people are on low cost pay as you go plans.

Almost all phones are available without contract at relatively low prices; and air time is available on a pay as you go basis, with topup cards sold in every corner shop. You can also top up online, and from special phone numbers that you dial in and give a credit card.

Most of these phones are carrier locked, but they are generally NOT nationality locked; so if you choose a carrier that operates all over Europe, you can usually swap with a local SIM card from one of those countries. Also, it is generally easier to unlock phones in Europe than in the U.S., with unlock codes readily available for most phones; as well as unlocked phones readily available in many shops (be careful of scams though).

Oh and of course, all of these benefits are available with a SIM only pay as you go account as well, presuming you have a compatible phone (quad band, or euro dual band GSM). You just pop into any phone shop, buy a SIM card, and you get a new phone number and some minutes, and away you go.

Most carriers across Europe offer RELATIVELY low cost international voice roaming, and may offer NO extra cost international roaming within their own networks (O2, Orange, T-mobile, and Vodafone all offer some type of special plan for international roaming).

Also, all of the major GSM carriers have cross charging agreements with each other, so even if there is an international roaming charge, it's relatively small in comparison to the stiff penalties US callers pay.

For example, O2, one of the largest carriers in Europe; has a standard tarriff for their pay as you go service, of 19 cent per minute, national in network calling to land lines, 49 cent national in network calling to mobile networks other than O2, and no out of network roaming fee within the nation of your SIM registration. O2 charges 15 cent to call landlines in most of Europe, 30 cent to call mobiles. Finally, their rate when calling from out of your national area (say your SIM is Irish and you're calling from Spain) is 29 cent per minute to receive a call, and 59 cent per minute to make a call, on any mobile network in the EU (note that is euro cents, not U.S. cents).

That's a fair bit of difference from typical US international roaming rates at $5 a minute.

Why the different rate between landlines and mobiles?

From a U.S. subscribers perspective, the most different (and probably the best) thing about European phone service is that it is "caller pays".

What does that mean?

On both U.S. and European mobile networks, when you make a call, you pay. Right, we all get that.

However, on U.S. mobile networks, the person you are calling ALSO pays THEIR carrier to receive the call.

I bold that, because it's something important for foreign readers traveling in the U.S. to understand; and because it typically boggles their minds, catches them unaawares, and often triggers a sense of righteous outrage (as it should).

That means the phone call is effectively being paid for twice. Worse, you have to pay for the privilege of receiving junk phone calls, telemarketing etc...

On most European networks, if you call someone on a mobile (whether from another mobile or a landline), the caller pays the extra charge; and there is no charge to receive calls.

It may sound complicated, but it's very important when you're on a pay as you go plan, because you can't be run out of minutes by other people calling you. Other people can call you, and you can talk as long as you want, and not have to pay.

The same goes for text messages by the way; which not only tend to be cheaper in Europe, but you only pay for outgoing messages, not incoming. Here in the U.S. they tend to ding us at $0.20 a piece, for both incomign AND outgoing messages.

This is why pay as you go is the most common option in Europe by the by; and why up until recently it has not been common in the U.S. As far as I'm concerned, we get a hell of a raw deal here, having to pay for incoming calls and text messages.

Alright, what if I'm traveling from Europe to the U.S.?

That is a slightly more complicated answer; because you have to take coverage into account, since U.S. GSM carriers have far less coverage area than CDMA carriers.

First step, figure out where you are going, then look at the coverage maps for AT&T wireless, and T-Mobile.

You can see that in urban and suburban areas, AT&T has excellent coverage, with some gaps; and T-mobile is pretty good, though not quite as good as AT&T. Outside of major urban areas though, coverage is pretty spotty. Also, GSM is more sensitive to the "urban canyon" effect than CDMA, and local environmental factors can blank it out more easily.

Presuming where you are traveling to has coverage, then go ahead and get yourself a quad band phone, and unlock it.

Once you get to the U.S. you can buy a SIM only pay as you go card from either T-Mobile for $10 including 10 minutes of airtime or AT&T for either $30 or $40, with anywhere from $20 to as much as $50 worth of minutes depending on whatever special offer they've got going on at that moment.

...You may have to speak clearly and slowly to explain to the people in the store that you don't actually want a phone though; I've found that most of the T-mobile and AT&T store employees don't even know you can get just a SIM only.

Also, you can only get the SIM only packages at corporate owned stores; and just because they have the sign and logo doesn't mean they are a real AT&T or T-Mobile stores. You can find out which ones are corporate stores from their web sites.

Though actually, before you go for a SIM only package, you may want to take a look at what phone deals they have going. In the U.S. mobile phone companies are constantly changing their promotional offers, to try and drum up more business; and you'd be surprised what kind of deal you could get. You could wind up with a second phone, and just as many minutes, for $5 more than the SIM by itself. This is especially true at the non-corporate owned stores; who are always trying to push through their inventory as fast as they can.

If you don't have a tri or quad band phone, and don't feel like buying one; again, picking a phone up locally is no big deal; but at that point you should consider a CDMA phone, as well as GSM.

Verizon has the best coverage of any network nationwide. They even have agreements with some cities to have underground cell sites in the subways, overhead cell sites on commuter trains, and microcell repeaters in some major office buildings, sports stadiums etc...

They have horrible customer service (though Sprint is even worse) and I generally don't like their phones; but if you're only going to be here a few weeks, and you're going to be on pay as you go anyway, what do you care, so long as you get coverage right?

The only real issue with Verizon as a Pay as you go provider specifically, is that their plans are pretty bad. First, they have an activation fee for their pay as you go phones; over and above what they charge you for the phone itself. They charge a per day fee for every day you use the phone, not just a per minute fee; then they stack a per minute fee, and roaming charges on top of that.

The good news is, there are several other pay as you go providers that use the Verizon network through network sharing agreements, that don't have such egregiously bad rates. You get all the network coverage, with less costs.

For example, TracPhone offers both CDMA, and GSM phones; and piggybacks on the provider network of any of the three major CDMA carriers (the GSM phones only use AT&Ts GSM network), at a flat rate of about $0.20 per minute, with no roaming or national long distance charges anywhere in the US.

Virgin Mobile, which uses the Sprint-Nextel network (far less coverage than Verizon in the west; about the same in the east), has rates that start at $0.20 per minute, and go down to as little as $0.025 per minute if you buy 1000 minutes at a time. They also offer monthly prepaid plans, for between $25 an $80 ($25 gives you 200 anytime, plus 500 night and weekend minutes. $80 gives you unlimited minutes) , with no roaming, anywhere in the U.S. Oh and Virgin Mobile offers better international long distance rates than any other provider as well ($0.10 to ireland, $0.20 to the UK and other countries are similar).

The only problem with all of these CDMA providers, is that none of them offer nationwide, pay as you go data services. They all make you use their proprietary, phone only (no tethering to your laptop) browser based email and web services... and they all charge a fair bit for that.

At least with AT&Ts GSM service, you can get real data services for $20 a month on a prepaid account.

Which is a neat segue into the next post in the series, DATA (including VOIP), coming tomorrow.