This blog post could so easily have been a paean in praise of T-Mobile. The mobile network launched a new set of pay-as-you-go data roaming boosters in the UK this spring that slash the cost of cellular Internet access when traveling in Europe. With a two-week vacation in prospect, I was keen to avoid the frustrations I'd suffered last year (and subsequently ranted about here). I went to my nearest convenient T-Mobile outlet, bought the USB laptop dongle and loaded up my pre-paid account with enough to fund a massive 400MB of laptop surfing during my trip.
US readers are probably aware of how expensive data roaming is in Europe, but what they may not realize is that it's just as expensive for European citizens as it is for Americans. A US resident can vacation anywhere in the 51 states and, if they have the right plan in place, pay no more to access data in Florida, Colorado or California than they pay in their home state of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Oregon or wherever. Whereas a European resident only has to travel a few hundred miles outside their own country to get hit with extortionate international data roaming charges. It's yet another example of how determined European national governments are to cramp the competitiveness of their domestic businesses, for fear of upsetting the powerful telecoms lobby. The European Commission has been working to bring roaming charges down but has faced resistance from national governments whenever it has tried to get tough.
So for my vacation in Portugal, a short two-and-a-half-hour flight from London — and for any data roaming on short business trips to other European locations — I have to pay my mobile operator £3 (almost $5) per megabyte unless I can find a cheaper prepaid bundle. As a direct result of these charges, European businesses are less productive and bear far higher overheads because the remote working and distributed teamwork their US rivals take for granted in their domestic market is economically penalized here in Europe to protect the pampered telecoms industry's regulated profits.
At £40 for 200MB, T-Mobile's roaming package is a welcome departure from the rest of the industry's sharp practices (it offers smaller packages but these are limited to a single day, whereas the £40 booster has a 30-day lifetime). It promised to be a lifesaver, and I eagerly anticipated surfing from the comfort of my own verandah after the kids were asleep instead of having to slope off to the Internet café during the day when my parental duty is to be splashing around with them in the pool.
Sadly, it was not to be. When I arrived in Portugal, the dongle could see all three networks that T-Mobile links to there, but all three refused to register the device. My iPhone could connect OK but my provider O2 only offers a maximum 50MB per month international roaming package (for which I pay £50 monthly fee and in any case it won't allow me to tether the iPhone as a data modem — same as last summer, O2 clearly isn't interested in my data roaming spend).
Eventually, I called T-Mobile's UK tech support line — which itself must have cost the earth since the company provides only a premium-rate number, with no alternative standard-rate number for those calling from abroad. I do commend the support line staff, because at least they were courteous, professional and prompt. But from what they've told me, it appears the network had not enabled the device for international roaming before leaving the UK (entirely T-Mobile's fault, not due to any oversight on my part), and due to a separate network issue it was not possible to override this once I was in Portugal. Now that I'm back in the UK, they assure me the device has been cleared for international roaming so it will work on my next trip — which is not much consolation. But they did promptly refund, at my request, the second £40 top-up I had pre-loaded in the expectation of getting through at least 400MB during my vacation.
What's really astonishing about this whole saga is that, for the second year running, the mobile telecoms industry has flunked the opportunity of over $100 in revenue from me through its own ineptitude. I really pull the stops out to use their services, and all they do is put up barriers or simply let me down. T-Mobile was that close to getting a glowing endorsement from me this year for its innovative Euro booster tariff. Yet as if it cannot resist the lure of living up to the telecoms industry's dismal track record, the company has cruelly snatched me from the jaws of customer satisfaction and plunged me instead into grumpy irritation and disappointment.