T-Mobile launches free international text and data roaming

Free plan offers just 128 Kbps data roaming, but adds 'speed boosts' for a fee

T-Mobile US took its rambunctious "uncarrier" message to another level by announcing free unlimited data and texting in 115 countries for business customers and consumers on its Simple Choice plan.

The cost for voice roaming -- normally painful for business travelers -- will be 20 cents a minute in those same countries, a fraction of what some other carriers charge, the company said Wednesday. T-Mobile also announced it has covered 233 U.S. metro areas with its 4G LTE network.

"We think this [roaming] deal will be tough for our competitors to react to," said Drew Kelton, executive vice president of business-to-business at T-Mobile, in an interview with Computerworld.

Aware that T-Mobile -- the nation's fourth-largest wireless carrier -- has been criticized for hatching disruptive plans designed to win new customers at the possible expense of profits, Kelton added, "The fact is that we have absolutely less to lose and lots to gain. The environment here is that we're in a challenger market."

Kelton offered a toned-down imitation of T-Mobile's brash CEO, John Legere, who has nonetheless caught the attention of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The nation's two largest carriers quickly came up with plans that largely imitated T-Mobile's accelerated smartphone upgrade plan announced this summer as the second tier of its "uncarrier" initiatives. In its first initiative this past spring, T-Mobile revamped its service contract approach.

While free unlimited data roaming in 115 countries sounds attractive, it will only be available for free at speeds no greater than 2G and with no tethering included, according to the fine print on the T-Mobile Web site. Customers must be part of T-Mobile's Simple Choice Rate Plan. Kelton said T-Mobile defines 2G as 128 Kbps, which is far below 4G LTE speeds that can reach 20 Mbps on data downloads.

To improve on those 2G speeds, T-Mobile said it has developed special Speed Boost plans for a fee. For business users, there are monthly plans that cost $25 for 150MB, $60 for 400MB, $120 for 1GB and $240 for 2 GB. T-Mobile didn't specify a data rate.

For consumers, the Speed Boost plans start at $15 for 100MB of data a day, $25 for 200MB a week and $50 for 500 MB of data for two weeks. Faster speeds will vary by country, T-Mobile said in an email to Computerworld.

Kelton said travelers will need to be sure their devices can run on the wireless frequencies in the countries they visit, which is mostly in the 1900 MHz spectrum. Some analysts said users will need quad-band phones to reach all the countries in Europe they want.

Data and voice roaming costs while traveling abroad can be upredictable and can be a "massive economic burden on companies," Kelton said. "We want to put certainty into the experience."

With the free data roaming plan, Kelton predicted business users would get "good email, social network access and browsing" for a day.

In a note to investors, Citi analysts said the data roaming offer from T-Mobile will "grab attention and build awareness ... while the data roaming limitations to 2G networks may limit the appeal of T-Mobile's offer."

Despite the 2G limit, Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said he agreed with T-Mobile that the free data roaming "lets you do some email, some GPS and a little Web browsing daily in a way that doesn't kill T-Mobile financially, but is enough for you to wet your whistle. It's not meant for you to watch videos in Vietnam, but you can text in Turkey and check email in Estonia."

Entner said the free data roaming is "more than any other competitor has," while 20 cents per minute on voice roaming charges is well below the $1 or more a minute other carriers charge.

This article, T-Mobile launches free international text and data roaming, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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