Friday, October 11, 2013 at 9:53 am.

Is T-Mobile’s ‘Free’ International Data Roaming Worth Switching For?

It’s a great headline and a nice bonus. But as always, look at the fine print.

Since T-Mobile’s U.S. exit plan was spoiled by the government, new CEO John Legere has promised loudly to anyone who will listen that he is going to try to shake up the wireless industry. His latest move: “Free” international data roaming, a service that remains significantly overpriced at rival carriers, despite recent price cuts.

When I first heard about this, I was very excited — finally, I could consider switching back to T-Mobile, a carrier I used (and loved) twice in the pre-smartphone era. I travel internationally several times per year, and while I actually enjoy shopping for foreign SIM cards, it would be nice to not have to worry about them. And for frequent overseas business travelers, it’s not a crazy concept to spend more each year on international data roaming than normal, home-country mobile service.

But, as always, there are tradeoffs here that make this less appealing than it sounds.

The biggest roadblock, for me, is data speed. T-Mobile’s free international roaming is only for 2G data service, which you probably haven’t used day-to-day since the first iPhone. After getting used to LTE speeds at home, it will seem unusably — or at least uncomfortably — slow.

T-Mobile’s site warns “Standard speeds approx. 128 Kbps.” That’s kilobits per second, which you need to divide by 8 to get kilobytes per second. Translation: That 128 Kbps tops out at 16 KB/sec — faster than dial-up, but slower than DSL, and way slower than LTE or even decent 3G.

This suggests that at “standard” speeds, it could take an entire minute to download a 1 MB photo, map, web page, whatever. When you are standing, staring at your phone, waiting for something to load, a minute is a long time! Especially when it’s something important that you either need for business or to help you make a transit/travel decision.

As a quick test, I just reset my iPhone’s data counter and, using the new per-app data consumption tool in iOS 7, looked to see how much my favorite apps used up in what I’d consider one session of solid use:

  • Twitter: 2.3 MB (~2.5 minutes at 16 KB/sec)
  • Facebook: 3.1 MB (~3 minutes)
  • Instagram: 10.2 MB (~10 minutes (!))

Now, yes, this is not a scientific survey. It’s possible that some apps are optimized when they sense that they’re on slower data networks — that would be cool. And text-only services like iMessage and e-mail, especially loading in the background, won’t be as annoying to use. But as I just experienced while roaming on Orange in France, where my download speeds were often below 350 Kbps, slow mobile access means using a lot less of it, consciously and subconsciously. No fun. Don’t expect to be doing much with your phone, or making Skype calls, while you’re 2G roaming.

Now, T-Mobile will let you pay more to upgrade to faster speeds. As Engadget notes, there are three “speed boost” roaming packages available:

  • One day and 100 MB for $15
  • One week and 200 MB for $25
  • Two weeks and 500 MB for $50

When I travel, and the data network is good, I use about 50-100 MB per day, including email, maps, photos, Twitter, etc. So the 500 MB for $50 sounds about right for my usual 6-to-10-day trips. That same 500 MB would cost $125 from Verizon Wireless, so T-Mobile would be saving me about $75, or more than half. (AT&T also offers a plan with 300 MB for $60, including some international wi-fi access.) A local SIM card, meanwhile, could be as little as $10-$2o for 500 MB, but there are costs in obtaining it, not having your main phone number active to receive calls without forwarding it, etc.

Assuming 3-4 trips a year, that’s still potentially hundreds in savings per person. More if you travel more. Not bad, but not as life-changing as the headline promise of “free” copious international broadband.

Then there are some other little things. No tethering, for example. Bummer; last I checked, Verizon lets me tether wherever I want, and many foreign prepaid SIMs include tethering. And if you want to use T-Mobile’s wi-fi calling feature, available on some phones, that still costs 20 cents/minute. Fine, ok.

The bottom line: If switching to T-Mobile already makes sense — you’ve priced out the packages, T-Mobile service is good enough where you live, and you’re already going to save a bunch of money — the new international data plan is a good bonus. When my Verizon contract is coming up for renewal, I’ll definitely consider T-Mobile as a viable service option for the first time in a decade. Well done, Mr. Legere.

But unless you’re already spending a ton on international roaming and you don’t mind really, really slow mobile Internet access, it’s probably not worth the switch by itself, especially if you’d have to pay a contract termination fee. Especially if T-Mobile’s actions get Verizon and AT&T to reduce their international roaming fees — even a fraction.