Is T-Mobile’s ‘Free’ Unlimited International Data Plan As Good As it Seems?

Is T-Mobile's new 'free' intl data a great deal, or is it thinly disguised bait and switch?
Is T-Mobile’s new ‘free’ intl data a great deal, or is it thinly disguised bait and switch?

Some normally hard-headed commentators have been gushing forth in the most positive terms about T-Mobile’s announcement, yesterday, that it would now allow users of its wireless service to enjoy international data roaming at no extra charge, in more than 100 different countries around the world, including pretty much all the common countries that we’re likely to visit.

Sounds good.  But is there a catch?  We think so.

It is true that one of the worst remaining aspects of cell phone service has been the way that costs skyrocket when you leave the US.  We all have more minutes than we need for calling, and a generous data plan that never seems to get us into overage fees, but as soon as we leave the US, the rules change.  We can find ourselves paying $10,000 or more per GB of data, and many dollars per minute on phone calls, both in to our phone and out again.

Companies such as Telestial and Mobal have prospered over the last decade and more by providing massively less expensive voice calling packages for international travelers.  Many times, these services give you free incoming calls, and some amount much less than $1/minute for outgoing calls.

But while voice costs have been wrestled down and are more or less under control now, data costs have remained stubbornly high.  One occasionally reads of people who come home to find an invoice for tens of thousands of dollars of data use – although such people typically incurred those costs as a result of streaming many movies to their phone, rather than just through ‘normal’ sending/receiving emails and a bit of other data usage.  Whereas we are used to thinking of our data costs in GB, many wireless companies express their international roaming charges in MB – so even a very moderate seeming $1/MB actually becomes a heart stopping $1000/GB.

Even worse, some companies quote in terms of costs per kB.  To convert from costs per kB to costs per GB, you need to multiply by one million.  This means, for example, that AT&T’s very modest seeming $0.0195 (ie almost 2 cents) per kB becomes $19,500 per GB!  To be fair, AT&T also sells blocks of data – $60 for 300MB of data or $120 for 800MB of data.

T-Mobile’s New ‘Free’ International Data Plan

Last night, T-Mobile said that with their service, international data would now be free.  Potentially, that could save us hundreds or even thousands of dollars on our next journey out of the US.  But if you’re to believe that, you also have to believe that T-Mobile wants to forego those thousands of dollars of almost pure profit, and how likely is that?

Here’s T-Mobile’s announcement (press release at the end of the short commentary by Engadget), and here’s an extraordinarily gushing report from normally hard-headed David Pogue in the New York Times.

The first hint that something strange is happening is where Pogue first refers dismissively to AT&T’s 300MB data package as ‘nothing, you can blast through that in a day’ but then goes on to laud the T-Mobile 200MB data package and suggests using it for video streaming and large file downloads.

You might wonder how it is that 300MB is nothing, but 200MB is a huge amount suitable for video streaming and large file downloads.  I do too!

So, what’s the reality behind the new T-Mobile product?

It seems likely that T-Mobile will be restricting the data speed with their ‘free’ data to somewhere between very slow and unusably slow.  If you can remember back to pre-3G data speeds, that is the sort of data speed that T-Mobile will probably be giving for free, except that it might be even worse than that.

When EDGE type data service first came out, it seemed fast because it was indeed faster than GPRS, and because back then, websites and everything were still being designed to be a little protective of data bandwidth.  But with the advent of 3G and now 4G and LTE wireless data, which are typically anywhere from 100 to 1000 times faster than EDGE, no-one really cares about data bandwidth much any more, and our view of what is fast and slow has shifted from earlier being happy that EDGE was faster than GPRS to now being unhappy with ‘only’ 3G (instead of 4G or LTE) data, and impatiently appalled if we ever fall back to EDGE or GPRS speeds.

Okay, it is true, sometimes speed isn’t everything.  If you are sending an email, speed doesn’t matter much – does it really matter if it takes ten seconds or ten minutes to be sent from your phone and be received by the recipient?  Usually not.  The same for receiving emails – who cares if you get emails a bit slower than normal.

But if you’re wanting to interactively use any of the data services on your device, get ready for some long waits.  If you want to use your smart phone’s GPS and mapping, for example, you might find the slow speed at which it downloads the mapping data makes the service completely unusable.  If you want to make a Skype call for free, you might find the call quality unacceptable.  If you want to look something up on the internet, you might find that so slow as to be unbearable.

Pogue adds some more gratuitous misunderstandings in his article too.  For example, he overlooks the fact that many people replace their smart phone when the two-year contract has expired (when lauding T-Mobile’s lack of subsidized phones), and talks emotively about people ‘turning their phones off in terror’.  Puhleeze.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is great to see T-Mobile offer free slow internet data, and to have better value high-speed data rates, too.  But to suggest this is a game changing profound change is totally wrong.

The reality is that the cost of 1GB of ‘normal’ speed international data, currently $150 from AT&T (if buying in 800MB chunks) has now dropped to $100 with T-Mobile (on their 500MB deal).  That’s a good thing, but hardly worthy of the giddy gyrations and hyperbole of David Pogue’s commentary.

Perhaps the Best Part of T-Mobile’s New Pricing

For many people, the best part of the new T-Mobile plans gets only a passing mention.

T-Mobile is giving its Simple Choice customers free texting internationally, and limiting the cost of international phone calls to 20c, with calls to landlines in over 70 countries being completely free.

This clearly and obviously translates to real savings, and with no need for any compromises.  Making international calling affordable is a tremendous boon, and is a reason to consider signing up for T-Mobile’s service, even if only for a month or two to cover the time you travel internationally.

T-Mobile don’t require you to sign up for a minimum period of time, so this is a practical thing to consider.

The Worst Thing About the T-Mobile Announcement

T-Mobile seems to be copying from Blackberry – hardly a great role model these days.

When Blackberry held is launch event in early 2013 for its latest range of phones – the ones that were going to save the company, but which, alas, have spectacularly failed to do so – it announced the appointment of iPhone enthusiast Alicia Keys as their ‘Global Creative Director’.  It is unclear what if any creating she has subsequently done for Blackberry.  But Blackberry clearly hoped that the paid but clearly insincere endorsement of its product by Keys would encourage the more empty-headed people out there to rush out and buy their phones.  Fail.

T-Mobile however overlooked the lack of success associated with Ms Keys’ association with BB, and so they announced a rather vague association with Shakira, another person apparently deemed to be influential with certain groups in society.

Oh – there’s another interesting Blackberry echo in the new unlimited slow data plan.  There used to be a $20/month unlimited international data plan with Blackberry devices – maybe there still is, for all any of us know or care.  The reason for this unlimited data plan was because the BB phones used so little data, and consumed it so slowly, that it was difficult, if not impossible, to use ‘too much’ of the data or to stress the networks  which the phones are connected to.

That is perhaps the plan with T-Mobile, now.  If you don’t actually need data, then their unlimited data plan is great.  But if you really do need data quickly, forget free.  You’ll be paying for it.

So – is their ‘free’ data a great deal, or a thinly disguised bait and switch act?  You decide….

4 thoughts on “Is T-Mobile’s ‘Free’ Unlimited International Data Plan As Good As it Seems?”

  1. Excellent analysis. When I was last in Europe data was much more important than calls because of the need to access Google maps, search for local restaurants, and check timetables. I suspect that’s true for many of us as we depend on our smartphones for information on demand.

  2. David, Your review is way, way too negative. You almost sound like (although you are not as far as I know) a spokesperson for AT&T. This will probably start a seismic shift in cell phone roaming prices worldwide.This will spread to other companies for competitive reasons.

    First, you probably never had to spend hours on the phone fighting a roaming bill for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. This will apparently not be a problem with T-Mobile any more. This is really important. That alone would be enough, but there is so much more.

    Even if you order the additional high-speed data packages, you you do not have to worry about incurring high prices when you use up your allotment. You just get throttled back. This is very important.

    You do not have to worry about huge charges for making calls when overseas. This is very big.

    Okay, the service may be slow, but one can get one’s email at all times and leave one’s phone on without worrying. This is big. The Blackberry plan that you referred to was not on every carrier. In fact, I think T-Mobile may have been the only carrier that had it and it was just for Blackberry email, but not for general data.

    The one possible downside that you and almost every other commentator has missed is that the phone charges might be higher than people expect when overseas if their phones are set to default to Wi-Fi. I think (but have not confirmed) that the system will assume you are in the US and will charge you for making an international call from the US, which is not capped at $.20 per minute unless you have the $10 per month international calling plan, which I believe can be turned on or off at any time.

    Still your review was way too negative for a very positive development for consumers.

  3. Have been a T-Mobile customer for about six years after a number of years as an AT&T mobile customer. Why the switch? T-Mobile allowed calling over wi-fi for the cost of their Wi-Fi access program. These calls did not count against my 600 minutes/month allotment. Now it is part of the usual unlimited calling/data package. This feature was and still is important to me because of my international travel. With access to a wi-fi signal calls are treated as if you are calling from within the US. For times when I am in an international hotel with LAN lines instead of wi-fi, I have carried an extra wi-fi router with me to provide my own wireless connection. I use international cell towers only when the call is urgent.

    I know other international travelers use Skype for voice only calls. The savings is significant since the data cost is generally much cheaper than $/minute phone calls.


  4. When in Europe last month, I could get WiFi in almost all hotels (for free) and lots of restaurants, etc. Putting phone on airplane mode shuts of normal calling, but allows good email, internet, etc. Yes, GPS would not work that way – but you can get a 3+ yr old cheap Garmin type GPS that works great. (I know another device to haul around and charge nightly.) I have an old unlocked cell phone which I put a SIM card in for more important calling when overseas – at about 20 cents a minute (depending on country). As I only hand out number to family and impt. contacts, I usually never get inbound calls. SIM cards are easy to get and relatively cheap. Sure, it would be nice to use my normal cell phone with all features, but too expensive for the convenience. Most complainers don’t do the research on how to communicate easily and cheaply.

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