Ubiquitous mobile connectivity in Europe

(Please note that I’m speaking as a dumb American in the following entry. If I’m incorrect, please comment and let me know)

My users are pretty funny sometimes. The questions that they ask are done innocently enough, and most of the time, they’re completely ignorant of the ramifications of us providing a solution (example? “Can we allow our clients to link to a report that they need to be logged in to see?”). This is probably one of those.

We’re always trying to increase our client base, and there are tons of financial entities in Europe who we’d love to provide services for, which means our sales and executive staff crosses the pond on a relatively routine basis. While they’re there, using their company-provided mobile phones is expensive…and when I say expensive, I mean it costs about a buck a minute to reach the US…and that’s AFTER the international plan…and if you think that’s overly expensive, don’t get me started on cellular data!

The problem is thus, how do we get our executives internet and mobile access when they’re in Europe at the lowest price?

In the US, cellular service is provided by a lot of different providers, but most of the providers are somewhat ubiquitous. For example, AT&T’s coverage is almost everywhere, even if the speeds aren’t always so great. Phone calls will generally work, with varying quality.

In Europe, coverage is much more fragmented. Each country has its own set of mobile carriers, and many of the protocols aren’t compatible, and when they are, the prices are outrageous. It was apparently so bad that the European Union had to step in and regulate roaming charges.

There are lots of services that claim to help the problem for Americans, but they smell like traps to me. Most of them involve multi-modem cellphones billed by resellers. Even the National Geographic Society has its name on one.

Fortunately there are some independent sites offering advice, most of which seems to be use the phone as little as possible. The world phones that people talk about do work in almost every country, but the phones are generic cell phones without access to corporate email, and my users find that unacceptable.

What we’ve done in the past is use the AT&T World Traveler plan, but even then, a call in the UK is $1/min and data comes in at a hefty $.0195/KB, which by my admittedly fuzzy math means you’re paying almost $20 for a MB. Lube is extra.

The solution that seems to have the lowest price, even if it’s a pain to manage, is to attack the problem on two fronts. We’re leaning toward pay as you go plans for mobile telephones to do voice, and using pay as you go data plans that will work with a mobile hotspot to provide internet. By using a mobile hotspot like the Mifi 2352, we can provide internet to an iPhone and a laptop (actually, up to 5 devices).

The two-pronged attack gives a local phone for in-country and emergency calls, and the data solution allows VoIP connectivity to the states to become a reality. It does involve two separate devices (three if you count the user’s iPhone), but also offers significant advantages to purchasing an expensive recurring data plan for a country that we’re not constantly visiting.

I know that some of you have to have the same kinds of problems as this. How did you solve it? I’d really like to know how other people do this cost-effectively, because it seems ridiculously expensive for no good reason. Any advice? Please comment below!

  • I don’t know who it was that started it, but there is a wiki hosted a wikia to help gather information about the best priced prepaid sim cards that include data rates in different countries.


    There are also companies like


    that I have only read about, but never tried. I just don’t understand how it can work without at least someone paying insane roaming charges (even if it isn’t you). I mean, I wish it would work. But if it does. Why are not everyone doing it?

  • vi

    I’d recommend to stop thinking about Europe and rather go with “country X” or “country Y”. If you need a unified presence, check voxbone for international numbers. Then just buy local prepay simcards (either data or voice) and use them as needed. You say it’s 1$/min, or 20$/MB… But in UK you can get a 3GB data-only simcard valid for a month for 15£ from some providers. Just redirect your chosen voxbone number to the new mobile, get any local voip account and you’re sorted for the whole trip. Using 3GB you can talk all you want.

    Just don’t expect anything to work all over EU. Cross the border -> get a local card. Your whole trip costed more than 15£, so I assume it was / will be worth it.

  • In Europe, coverage is much more fragmented. Each country has its own set of mobile carriers, and many of the protocols aren’t compatible, and when they are, the prices are outrageous.

    The prices are admittedly outrageous, but I’ve not been to a single European country where my (UK) phone doesn’t work. And this phone works in the US too, where the protocols look much more fragmented to us than they do in Europe…

    Roaming prices in the US are pretty much equally as outrageous as from the UK to other European countries, so I suspect it’s more that the carriers are trying to fleece people whenever they can.

    But yes, get a local pay-as-you-go SIM card in the country you’re going to (this is what I do if I’m going to be somewhere for a long enough time to warrant it). Data will probably still be moderately expensive, but a lot cheaper than roaming charges!

  • John_M

    My company uses Verizon/vodaphone for users who travel outside the US… that being said, we have had issues with Vodaphone causing our phones to go dead…

    We have the Vodaphone SIM cards in Blackberry’s, and for the most of our users works fine in the EU, and in the Far East. We have had less issues with BB/Verizon/Vodaphone than other voice plans that have been implemented in the past.

    There is still the issue that has arisen regarding the Middle East and India demanding access to Data that travels across Blackbery networks, but that is off-topic in this discussion.

    We also ACTIVELY encourage our users not use the data services on the BB’s for cost reasons. Not that it helps, but we do try…

  • Ingo

    Here’s a Wiki I’ve found to be a bit useful: http://paygsimwithdata.wikia.com/wiki/Pay_as_you_go_sim_with_data_Wiki

  • Dave

    Our users who travel abroad are all Blackberry users. For data, AT&T’s international Blackberry plan is (or at least was before they removed unlimited) $65/mo for unlimited data around the world. This means no overages no matter how much data you use with a Blackberry device. I think Blackberry accomplishes this by having local servers in every country.

    Voice calling IS still outrageous and our solution for that has often been just to ask users to use local phones except for important calls. Asking users to swap around SIM cards is just asking for trouble. We’ve had a few scary $500-2000/person bills before, but in general they manage to keep it under control. It’s considered just another cost of doing business.

  • Joel Haasnoot

    You say there’s a variety of protocols involved. True, but the easy way to understand the various frequencies is to get a quadband phone. For voice, there’s 4 frequencies (850, 900, 1800 and 1900 Mhz), if you have those, your GSM phone will work in any GSM country. Most smartphones seem to be all 4. Data/EDGE/GPRS/HSPDA is a little more complicated, but it too can be triband or quadband…

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