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Optimizing International Cell Phone Mobility


I am a mobile road warrior. My company has its headquarters in Austin, Texas but much of its customer base is in Europe. That means constant air travel, high cell phone bills, and the need to consider any chair as my office. Averaging twice a month, I make my way to Europe to visit customers and partners. I write this article from 30,000 feet.

I carry two cell phones - one in each pocket. Why I do this is an interesting story that reflects lessons learned about how to juggle phone calls where ever I am, without bankrupting my company or alienating my customers.

When I first started to travel abroad, I discovered that it is very important to make sure my US phone service was GSM. Today, all new service accounts from Cingular and T-Mobile are GSM. Neither Verizon nor Sprint offer GSM. GSM service follows an international standard. With it, the same phone should work almost anywhere you are in the world. People in the US are able to reach you as they normally do without dialing a different phone number.

If you do not have GSM service, you are out of luck when abroad and forced instead to call in remotely to check voicemail for missed calls. Even with a GSM phone, be aware that US frequencies do not completely follow international standards. So, make sure your phone is "tri-band" or 'quad-band" for maximum interoperability.

OK, now you've got a GSM phone that works at home and abroad. You are just getting started. You are likely to get a nasty surprise a month or so after starting the service: a first month bill for $1,000 or more. You pay roaming charges of a dollar or more a minute for calls you make and receive while abroad. The extra roaming charges apply to call segments between you and your home network, in both directions.

If you are traveling with a colleague and you call each other to meet for breakfast in the hotel you are both staying in, you will pay up to $4 per minute between the two of you. Still worse, you will pay roaming charges for incoming calls from your back-home friends who think you are still local. You may also find that your customers abroad aren't willing to call you on your US mobile number. As a general rule, they will have to pay international long distance rates to reach you and if you are traveling abroad (e.g. visiting their office), you will pay roaming charges too. Everyone loses, except the phone company of course.