US mobile carriers now allow their customers to use data worldwide for free. Meanwhile, European carriers are still charging to roam within the EU. What's wrong with this picture?
When I first moved to Europe ten years ago, finding cell phone solutions while I was home visiting the US was a bi-annual challenge.
I go home twice a year - often enough to need a US cell phone while I'm there, but not often enough to maintain a monthly plan. While travelling in Europe, I would buy local prepaid sim cards for extended visits. But in the US, there were hardly any prepaid cell phone options and those that existed charged outrageous rates.
For telecommunications, coming back to the US seemed like going back to the dark ages. People were paying way more for cell phones, cable and internet than in Europe. In Belgium I get unlimited data for a month simply for topping up €15 onto my account (I'm then free to use that €15 however I want, and I usually use it for roaming). In the US, people usually pay around $100 per month for their cell phones, and upwards of $120 per month for their cable and internet (by contrast, in Belgium I paid $20 per month for cable and internet).
But I've noticed that this situation in the US has very rapidly changed over the past few years. Ten years ago I was relegated to use the handful of strange prepaid providers that were clearly taking advantage of people with bad credit (people who would not be allowed to have monthly postpaid plans). Today, most of the big carriers, particularly AT&T and T-Mobile, are offering very attractive prepaid options.
It seems to be T-Mobile US that has spurred this trend. They rebranded themselves the "uncarrier" and started offering monthly contracts with no termination fees, at very competitive rates.
Because prepaid phones expire after a few months of non-use, I have to get a new sim card/phone number each time I come home. This time, I went with T-Mobile. It's a very attractive offer. For $50 prepaid per month, I get unlimited data, unlimited calls and unlimited texts. But wait, that's not all.
Significantly, I can also use this unlimited allowance in Mexico and Canada. This worked out perfectly for me because I happen to be in Mexico right now, spending a week on the Yucatan peninsula exploring Mayan ruins and relaxing on the beach. I can use my phone here just like I would in the US - incredible!
But wait, there's more! In addition, I can also use my unlimited data allowance IN THE ENTIRE WORLD! Yes Europeans, you heard me right. T-Mobile US is allowing its customers to use wireless data throughout the world, at no extra cost. It's just a gift that comes along with the (very reasonably priced) $50/month plan. Calling and texting are still charged a roaming fee outside of North America, but honestly it's the data that you really need. You can always make a call and send a message using your data.
So this begs the question: why is T-Mobile, a German company with a presence throughout Europe, not offering its European customers a similar deal? They're not even offering such a 'roam like at home' plan for within the EU - a single market!
I'm going to be doing some travelling through Latin America over the next few weeks, so I will be using my US sim card to roam. If I used my Belgian carrier, Proximus, it would cost me - get this - €5 per megabyte! Proximus also provides me with the oh-so-generous option of paying €4.13 per day for 50mb of data per day. That's enough to post maybe two pictures. Gee, thanks Proximus.
For years I've mocked the US for being behind Europe when it comes to telecommunications. Now I'm changing my tune. Why have European carriers been so slow to provide innovative, attractive roaming solutions for their customers, even within the single market?
A few carriers have started to offer some roam-like-at-home packages. For instance, Three, the carrier I use while in the UK, has started offering 'feel at home' plans that allows you to use your domestic roaming allowance in a handful of countries. But the list of countries has no relation to the single market that the UK is in. It includes some EU countries - France, Denmark, Spain and Ireland - but then has others including the United States and Australia. Huh?
I've asked around for other examples of these 'roam like at home' packages but have found only a handful of others in Europe, and they also have an extremely limited list of countries to choose from.
The European telecoms companies have spent many years and millions of euros resisting the EU's attempts to force them to offer roaming for free within the European Union. They have all along insisted that market forces will spur them to offer competitive roaming packages. But these packages have not emerged. Meanwhile, in the US, they are emerging. Why? What is different about the US market?
I would be curious to hear people's thoughts on this. In the mean time it looks like my future will be a continued rotation between my four (four!) different sim cards.