Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

Updated December 2013

Florence fashionistas checking email

Florence fashionistas checking email

If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “why doesn’t my American cell phone just work in Europe?” and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.

What’s easiest and best for European data today?

WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. Connection quality varies widely — from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you’re stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing.

Mobile wireless data: You’ll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 99% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is just beginning, and is on different radio frequencies to US 4G LTE. That means your US phone likely won’t connect to European 4G LTE networks today. Expect this to change over the next few years as new phones come out: phone makers like Apple and Samsung like to standardize on a single hardware design world-wide that can access all networks. It’s cheaper and simpler for them to manufacture.

European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage outside of 3G data areas.

GPRS/EDGE typically offers data rates in the 128-256K region, and is good for email and basic surfing. All GSM world phones support it. You don’t need to do anything different with your phone while in Europe.

Beware mobile data roaming rates

Mobile data roaming rates on your US phone or tablet plan can be extremely expensive, so beware . When you leave your home (US) network, your costs go up. There is only one “unlimited data” international roaming plan (T-Mobile — read this article on its ground-breaking offering).

Very important: You will be paying per Megabyte for “roaming” data usage outside the US. Your US data plan only covers data usage on your home network. Usage “off network” comes out a different “bucket” of data usage.

AT&T typically charges $20 per Megabyte on its standard international data roaming plan. You can also purchase discounted international data rates, but these are capped — you pay for a fixed amount, and anything over the limit is charged per megabyte.

The hands-down leader in roaming costs is T-Mobile, offering free rate-limited data (up to 256Mbits/sec). For many people this works fine for email, simple web browsing, and mapping apps on smartphones. You can purchase “buckets” of data from T-Mobile that are not rate-limited, allowing up to 1Mbit/sec on 3G networks.

Wireless data technology available in Europe

Data rate Technology
Up to 171Kbps (theoretical) General Packet Radio Service (GPRS)
Up to 384Kbps (theoretical) Enhanced Data GSM Environment (EDGE)
Up to 1Mbps (theoretical) 3rd generation GSM (3GSM or simply 3G)
Up to 14Mbps (theoretical) High Speed Data Packet Access (HSDPA) or 3.5G
Up to 100Mbps (theoretical) 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution — yes, that is actually what it stands for)

WiFi: Increasingly the most cost-effective data option

With the broader availability of wireless Internet world-wide, WiFi is becoming the most cost-effective option. Carriers like T-Mobile have extremely good WiFi coverage in Europe, and often have roaming agreements with other WiFi “hot spot” providers. If you are a US T-Mobile customer you may already qualify for free or discounted WiFi world-wide as part of your mobile contract.

The problem with WiFi is that it isn’t truly mobile — but that’s often OK if you have a “home base” like a coffee shop or hotel where you can do your email and other online work each day. And with Skype on the iPhone and other mobile devices, you can also place free or cheap international phone calls over WiFi too.

3G (3GSM) data

3G stands for “3rd Generation” and represents a whole new mobile technology standard. 3G offers data rates up to 1Mb/sec. 3G is now widely deployed in Western European countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as the Middle East. Because coverage is generally good in the major cities but not elsewhere, most 3G phones will “fall back” to GPRS/EDGE if they cannot establish a 3G data connection.

Note that there are restrictions based on the use of different frequencies in the US and Rest Of the World (ROW). 3G radio frequencies are different in the US, and so phones need to support no less than 8 different radio frequencies to get full GSM and 3GSM coverage world-wide. To keep costs down, some phones will only support 3G in the US and fall back to EDGE or GPRS elsewhere.

High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) or “3.5G”

An acronym only engineers could love to describe a 3G network with higher speed download — 3.5Mbits/sec on most networks, though theoretically capable of 14Mbits/sec. A bit flaky today, so don’t count on it internationally.

4G LTE

Engineering geekiness beat out clarity again with the naming of 4th Generation (4G) mobile data. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and the explanation for this is simply too dull to repeat here. Expect data rates in the double-digit megabit range. The actual rate depends on many factors, including the network, the phone, the phase of the moon (OK, kidding), how you hold your phone (not kidding) etc. 4G coverage is very limited today, mostly to urban areas. Do not count on being able to actually get 4G speeds in a specific location unless you have been there and tried it.

The most popular 4G LTE device is the “New iPad” — you know, the one with no official name that came after the iPad 2. New iPads are great for those travelling to Europe, as both the Verizon and AT&T versions support GSM 3G networks and both are unlocked. This means you can buy a pre-paid micro-SIM from any carrier, slot it into the New iPad, and it will provide 3G service. You can even buy an AT&T micro-SIM in the US and use it in the Verizon iPad for 3G coverage (though not sure why you’d want to do that).

Enhanced Data GSM Environment (EDGE)

Most GSM phones available in the US offer the somewhat tortuous acronym of EDGE. Offering up to 384K of bandwidth, EDGE is an add-on to GSM networks that bumps up the amount of data that the network can carry using GPRS (see below). In the US, AT&T has been turning off EDGE in congested areas in cities like San Francisco and New York so it can re-use the radio frequencies for 3G. It is not clear what the long-term plans are for EDGE given that 3G is more attractive.

General Packet Radio Service (GPRS)

GPRS theoretically offers up to 171K of bandwidth from your cell phone. In practice, the actual data rate is limited by your cell phone and/or the carrier, and may top out at 40K or thereabouts. If there isn’t a good connection between the phone and the network, speed is reduced in order avoid re-transmission of garbled data. Also, all GPRS users in the same cell contend for the available GPRS bandwidth. The carriers put an upper limit on the bandwidth that each phone can use to prevent any one person from hogging it all. If you’re sitting in a room full of people using GPRS, such as a press room at an event, you may get just 9.6Kbps even with GPRS.

There are two older standards, modem emulation and Circuit Switched Data, but they’re so slow and GPRS is now everywhere that I’ll ignore them.

Connecting your phone to a PC and Tethering

Many GSM world phones send and receive e-mail and provide a web browser. However, he small screen makes it very hard to use the phone for long messages or standard web pages. The carriers know connecting your phone to your laptop breaks all their assumptions about how much bandwidth you will use, so they disable tethering. You can fix this by unlocking your phone (see previous article) and updating its software, or buying an unlocked phone that doesn’t have this restriction.

Before you leave…

If you plan to use a GSM world phone in Europe, make sure you get data services working before you leave. In many cases, your phone comes pre-configured, but you might have to use a web-based tool from your carrier to “provision” it, or call the technical support line. Smartphone users will be fine — the phone basically can’t function well without data services, so it’ll already be set up.

One important tip: for those planning to use their own phone and US plan for data in Europe, call your mobile wireless carrier before you leave and tell them to turn on “international data roaming”. You need to do this even if you have already called to tell them to turn on international (voice) roaming, as in the wireless carrier’s systems, these two services are not the same or even linked. If you merely ask your carrier to turn on “international roaming”, chances are they will turn on voice but not data. If you cannot connect to a GPRS service while in Europe even though your phone shows that data service is available, this is likely the problem.

Handy mobile data tips

  • If roaming with your own phone, make sure GPRS and/or 3G works to your satisfaction before you leave
  • If using your own phone, call your carrier before you leave and ask them to turn on international voice roaming and international data roaming
  • Only modem emulation will let you send a fax via your phone, and not all carriers offer it as a service
  • Bluetooth offers the most flexible way to connect a PDA or laptop to your phone, but make sure it works before you leave

Links

The GSM Association: trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps for GSM data services.

Search eBay for GSM phones that support EDGE

Search eBay for GSM phones that support GPRS

AT&T

T-Mobile

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  1. Pingback: Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones | La Photo Vita

  2. Hi. Any tip on how I should go about switching from a U.S. number to an Italian one on my iPhone 4S? I just moved to Florence, Italy two days ago for about 2-3 years due to a company relocation. Should I go all the way to the Apple store (25-40 mins outside of town) to accomplish this change or simply march into a certain provider store in the city and ask to begin on their network? If the latter, do you know which network is the best in Florence and/or Italy? And which ones work best with iPhones? Thanks! clairezurek@mac.com

  3. Interesting info in both pages. Thanks
    Especially about using wifi.

    What I need to find out now is about gps and maps. Clearly the maps are “data”, but I don’t know how much they add up as I drive.

    I’ve gotten very used to using my iphone 4s or ipad as a gps as I drive. Would it end up being cheaper just to buy a european gps for a 3week trip in scandinavia?

    • You can find out by looking at the “cellular usage” for Google Maps (or whatever you’re using). Reset the usage data, go for a drive, and see what it says. I tried that this week in Europe and over the past 6 days Google Maps has used about 15MB of data.

  4. question- while in Italy, if I get a sim with a data package for my cell phone, will I be able to use my phone as a hotspot for my ipad as I do in the US

    • Probably… it depends on your phone and the network operator. With iPhones, the ability to use the iPhone as a hotspot is controlled by the network operator (e.g. Telecom Italia, or whoever you choose for the SIM card). In my experience, most of the time you get to use hotspot capability — after all, it consumes data, which is a positive for the network operator who wants to sell you more data capacity. You can hack Android phones to always allow hotspot capability, and other phone operating systems are different.