Being a global mobile data warrior

I spent 10 days in Canada on vacation, but I still needed to check in for work. Here's how I learned the ways of the international road warrior.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

You may have noticed that I've been largely missing for the last 10 days on ZDNet — I was out of the country in Quebec City and Montreal on vacation with my wife, seeing the wonders of the Quebec countryside and dining on French-Canadian cuisine such as poutine and smoked meat, aka, Canadian pastrami.


And, yes, they really do put maple syrup on everything.

Despite the fact that I was on vacation, I still needed to be able to participate in a number of conference calls for work, to be able to call home and local Canadian businesses, and also be able to get and respond to my emails and such. The social networking stuff was less of a priority, but it was nice to have.

Given that you really cannot depend on having free or paid Wi-Fi everywhere you go, having at least one device with an international mobile data and voice plan was a necessity.

The first step is determining whether your mobile device and carrier has sufficient coverage where you're going. I own three phones, two on Verizon (a Samsung Galaxy Nexus and an iPhone 5) and one on AT&T, my Windows Phone 8 Nokia Lumia 920.

All three of these are 4G long-term evolution (LTE) phones, but the Verizon ones use a different LTE standard than the AT&T one. So that didn't guarantee that in Canada, I would get equivalent coverage as I do in the US, because I would be roaming on two different Canadian providers, Rogers and Telus, both of which offer 4G LTE service.

Some phones on the market are "world" or "global" phones, in that they can access most if not all of the different carrier frequencies for mobile data and voice, including the more common HSPA+ and 3G GSM data frequencies.

If you're a frequent international traveller and you visit a lot of countries, you many want to investigate buying one of those, such as the unlocked international version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, the AT&T unlocked version of the iPhone 5, or an unlocked Nokia Lumia series.

Keep in mind that all of these unlocked versions are sold at full retail, do not require a contract, and are unsubsidized, and you have the option of swapping out SIM cards and buying pay-as-you-go plans on foreign carriers if needed. Most subsidized US carrier phones can also be unlocked for a modest fee.

So the first thing I did was look at each carrier's respective website for coverage in Quebec, as well as the pricing for the temporary plans I would need to add in order not to be hit with extremely high international roaming charges. It's not uncommon to be hit with a $20 per megabyte roaming charge if you don't set yourself up with a plan ahead of time.

Both of my carriers had similar voice roaming coverage areas in Quebec, and fairly similar rates (AT&T) for Canada (Verizon).

Avoid using any video or audio streaming services when you have your mobile data connection turned on, since they can consume data like a thirsty elephant.

However, only AT&T had 4G data coverage, as both Canada's Rogers and Telus use the international LTE standard used in Europe and other parts of the world, rather than Verizon's specific CDMA implementation that is used in the United States. In Canada, Verizon uses 3G or 2G networks for data. T-Mobile uses similar mobile network technology to AT&T, and Sprint's is similar to Verizon's.

In the end, I chose to bring my AT&T Nokia 920 to Canada, and selected a 200-minute voice and 300MB data plan, which ran me $120 for a 1-month billing period. Verizon is different in that it has pay-as-you-go plans, so if 4G is not important to you and you plan to use your data miserly, that's not a bad option.

Once you've got your data plan and carrier/device issues out of the way, the next thing you want to do before jumping on the plane to your destination is disable as many apps that use pull/push services as you can, and turn off your data service on the phone.

The reason for that is if you are going to be out of pocket on an aircraft for a long time, the minute you land at your destination and your data connection is active, your phone will attempt to activate itself on the foreign carrier network and start pulling down emails and other data, depending on what apps and services run in the background.

If you get a lot of emails and social media updates, the data pull could be considerable.

Most of the time, you also want to turn your GPS off, because the phone will attempt to communicate using various background services if you leave it on, thus consuming mobile data as well as lots of battery power. Applications like Google Maps and other similar location-aware programs are tremendously data hungry because of the map and other POI data they need to cache.

It should also be noted that you want to avoid using any video or audio streaming services when you have your mobile data connection turned on, since they can consume data like a thirsty elephant.

Wanna watch Miley Cyrus twerk? Do it on Wi-Fi. Got apps to update? Do it on Wi-Fi. Got Instagrams to publish? Do it on Wi-Fi.

I discovered very quickly that my three email accounts, plus all of my social networking accounts configured on my Windows Phone as well as free-standing apps like Twitter pulled down 30MB of data in just a few hours after landing in Quebec City.

This was so much data, in fact, that AT&T temporarily disabled my data connection while roaming on Rogers. As it turned out, it didn't provision my international data and voice plan when I asked it to the week before, and I had to call its international customer service line to turn it back on.

Once I had that straightened out, I only left my work email account and one personal email account active. I removed all my social media connectors and uninstalled my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn apps, opting to use the HTML5 mobile web browser versions of these services instead.

As it turns out, I actually found the mobile web browser versions of these services to be faster than their app counterparts when I was in Canada. And since they do not push/pull unless the pages are open, it's a more data-miserly way to use those services.

If you're going to be out and about during the day, it makes sense to leave your data connection and location services off all of the time, and only turn it on when you need to look something up, such as a restaurant or a business.

Make sure to take advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots such as restaurants, cafes, and hotels for bulk data syncs.

4G data, in addition to being expensive, is also power hungry. So while you can easily keep the voice services running all the time, you might want to consider ratcheting your data down to 3G if your phone supports it.

My Nokia Windows Phone 8 device only has a simple data on/off toggle in its cellular settings page (even though the device itself will step down to a slower network if required for coverage), but my iPhone and Android devices allow for more granular control of the type of data connection used.

You may still find yourself needing additional battery power because you're spending more time being out and about, rather than being at home or at an office and having less opportunities to plug in.

In addition to bringing the right kind of charger adapters for the country you are visiting (in Canada's case, you don't need any if you are coming from the US, as it has the same 110VAC plugs), you should probably investigate rechargeable battery packs.

I happen to be partial to the 12,000mAh iCarrier from New Trent ($45), which has two USB ports, one for 1-amp/5W charging and the other for 2.1-amp/10W charging for tablets. Both can be used simultaneously if needed. The company has also recently introduced a ruggedized, 13,500mAh version for about $10 more, the PowerPak+.

Have you also learned to become an international mobile data warrior? Talk back and let me know.

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