Updated October 2015
If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “How can I use my cell phone 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. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi 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) 90% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is picking up speed and is mostly available in larger towns and cities.
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 (256Kb/sec) outside of 3G data areas.
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.
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. AT&T charges $0.25 per Megabyte on its $30 international roaming plan that comes with 120MB of data.
3G (3GSM) data
3G stands for “3rd Generation” and represents the mobile technology standard that came after 2nd generation (no kidding!), the original GSM 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.
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 somewhat limited today, mostly to urban areas.
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.
The best way to prepare before going to Europe is to go to the website for your carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) and buying one of their international roaming packages. This normally ensures that your phone is enabled for use outside the US, and you won’t get burned by the default (high) rates, or have a phone that won’t work at all because international roaming is turned off (to prevent fraud).
The GSM Association: trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps for GSM data services.