Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Teutonic telecommunications troubles

As I've been discovering this week, German prepaid mobile plans leave much to be desired.

In 1999, when I moved from Boston to New York in order to transfer to a different university, there were a lot of logistical hassles along the way. I remember that one of the worst was changing my mobile phone.

Back then in the US, our mobile phone plans still had 'home ranges' outside of which you would pay a roaming surcharge to use your phone. This range was usually your state, or maybe a zone of three states. My mobile phone with a Massachusetts number would have been roaming in New York. So I had to change my phone plan. I also had to change my Massachusetts phone number to a New York one so that when people called me in New York they wouldn't be charged for a long-distance call.

None of that would be necessary today. After only a few years US mobile carriers got rid of roaming charges within the United States, and started offering free long-distance calling to any US number. The result is that when moving from one state to another, it is no longer necessary to get a new phone number. My friends in New York now have phone numbers with area codes from all over the US, but it doesn't matter because it's the same rate to call any area code.

Alas, this is not the situation in the European Union. Despite the efforts of the European Commission, mobile operators still charge roaming fees to use a mobile phone in another EU member state. Long-distance rates for calling or texting a phone number from another EU member state are exorbitant. Moving to another state inevitably means getting a new phone provider.

So, I need to get a German sim card to put in my phone. It's proving to be rather complicated.

I will be using my Belgian phone number as my main work number, and if it were up to me I would keep using my Belgian sim card in Germany. But there is no Belgian carrier offering a 'roam like at home' plan - they all charge for roaming in Germany. I am confronted with the additional problem that if I used a Belgian phone number in Germany, people might not want to call or text me because they would be charged long-distance fees.

The compromise I've decided on is that I will get a dual-sim phone, which can make and receive calls on both my Belgian and German numbers. Unfortunately this means I will have to switch from an iPhone to an Android phone, since Apple doesn't make dual-sim phones. I'm not so thrilled about that, but I am holding on to the slim hope that I might like Android more than iOS. I will be getting a Sony Xperia Z3.

Today I went shopping in Berlin for a German mobile plan, stopping at all the different carriers. I was not very impressed with what was on offer.

In Belgium, my mobile carrier is Proximus. I am on a prepaid plan. When I load €20 onto my account, I get 2GB of internet and unlimited texts, simply as a reward for having topped up. I am then able to spend the €20 however I want, either to make calls or for roaming.

Apparently, in Germany, this type of pre-paid plan does not exist. They only have plans where you get a certain number of calls, texts and internet usage per month, but nothing where you can top-up an account and spend the money as you choose. It's basically the same as a post-paid plan, except you have to pay up front. The rates are not good. The highest amount of internet I could find for any plan was 1GB per month. That's nothing. I had heard that Germany was pretty behind when it comes to digital and internet issues, but I didn't realise it was this bad.

Getting a post-paid plan isn't an option because you need a German bank account to get one of those, and I don't plan on getting one, at least for the short term. So, I'm stuck getting one of these plans. I'm not sure which one I will go with, probably O2. But with only 1GB of internet per month, I have a feeling I will have to use my second sim slot for internet as a back-up.

As it happens, my British sim card, which is from three, could work well for this purpose. Three just eliminated roaming within the EU, with a roam-like-at-home plan. It's the first UK mobile carrier to do so, and it's exactly the type of thing that the Commission has been trying to encourage mobile carriers to do. It's great, I'm on a pay-as-you-go plan for my British phone as well, and I can buy a week's worth of internet for just two pounds.

So the plan is to use three different sim cards (UK, DE, BE) and rotate them around in my two-slot phone. If it sounds complicated, that's because it is! My life would be a lot easier if I could just use my Belgian sim.

In any event, I think I will wait until I actually move to Berlin to get a sim card.

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