Last year T-Mobile announced an extraordinary change in its international data charging policies. In addition to selling blocks of regular high speed data at high prices, the same as other wireless carriers (eg 500 MB for $50), it also started giving away unlimited free slow speed data in most but not all countries (about 120 countries are included).
The slow free data was said to be limited to speeds of about 128 kbps. That’s massively slower than the potential maximum speeds of high speed 3G, 4G and LTE services, and many people (me included!) worried it would be too slow to be of any use. After all, you get what you pay for, right?
So, clearly, the catch appeared to be that the data service is ‘slow’ rather than ‘fast’. But just how much slower than ‘normal’ or ‘fast’ data speeds is the free T-Mobile slow service? We’ll answer that question if you first tell us how high is up!
By this we mean that all wireless data services vary enormously in their speed. This is because each cell tower has a fairly low maximum bandwidth capacity. If only one person is using the tower’s data bandwidth, their phone probably gets most or all the speed theoretically available. But as more users start simultaneously sharing the data bandwidth, speeds start to quickly drop down. Weak signals also slow down data speeds further.
So even a ‘fast’ data connection is seldom (never!) anywhere near as fast as its theoretical claimed maximum speed. And there’s much more to the ultimate experience we get than just the data speed. For example, the speed at which a web page appears on your phone isn’t just related to the data speed, it is also related to the latency, the speed of the server issuing the page, other internet speed constraints, and lastly, the time it takes your phone’s CPU and GPU to render and display the page after obtaining the data. All these factors have appreciable impacts on the total time for a web page to appear.
In other words, if you halve the data transfer speed, you might only notice a very tiny slowdown in how fast web pages load on your phone.
To complicate matters further, the same bandwidth sharing issues apply to the slower earlier types of data service too. So not only is ‘fast’ data a very moveable target, so too is ‘slow’ data. Indeed, my own experience in both Europe and New Zealand with T-Mobile’s free service hints at a possibility that while sometimes the free slow data may indeed truly be S*L*O*W, sometimes it seems it is very much faster than 128 kbps too. Other people have reported similar experiences and sometimes also getting unexpected fast free service.
In theory T-Mobile says it caps its slow data at 128 kb/sec, and in theory faster data can be ten or one hundred times faster than this. But the perceived difference in speed to us as users – and that’s really all that matters, most of the time – is much less impactful. In the case of email, you’ll seldom if ever notice the slower speed, because email is not an interactive process. All that happens is that instead of an email being received in one second, maybe it is now received in ten seconds.
You couldn’t stream video at this slow speed, but you probably can use Skype for voice calls (latency is as much an issue as speed when placing Skype calls). You can even download fairly large files (I downloaded a 600 MB map update in less than half an hour – I’d have paid $60 for that alone if buying fast data at 10MB per dollar). T-Mobile restricts your ability to tether your phone and share the free slow data with other devices, so that’s not an option.
We were a bit cynical about how useful slow data would be, but we’ve used it now on several journeys in both Europe and the South Pacific, and have had no problems with it and no longer feel the need to buy faster and expensive data service too.
Bottom line? All we can really say about the slower data service is that web pages load perceptibly more slowly, but if you don’t mind waiting another ten seconds or so, you still get the page up and onto your phone. It isn’t snap-your-fingers-fast, but it is functional, and most of all, it is free.
So – to answer our opening question. Is T-Mobile’s slow and free international data service a practical offering for us when we travel? Yes, definitely. Many thanks to T-Mobile for this transformationally wonderful new service.