UMTS + US – or: problems finding a right prepaid data plan when traveling to the US

As you might know, I have switched from using a global data plan for my mobile phone to buying local prepaid cards to use in my smartphones. This is also the reason why I don’t use the BlackBerry anymore and over time, I’ve colleced a stash of them. Not many, but the collection is growing:

a collection of my prepaid SIMs

(Russia, Belarus, Austria, United Kingdom, United Arabic Emirates)

I also wanted to apply this now familiar pattern and acquire a prepaid data SIM when traveling to the US, which I have planned (and already booked flights and the like) for early March. I checked some of the local carriers and the confusion on my side is massive. I’ll however try and give you a summary of my findings:

a) prepaid data plans in the US pretty much don’t exist. There are a few (especially the major) carriers who offer them, but they charge hugely in comparison to every other place in the world. Data usage in Great Britain is around 10 GBP / GB, here in Germany about 10 EUR per GB and pretty much the same all over Europe, even including Russia (and yes, this is all prepaid packs I’m talking about). The US seems to only offer very small prepaid plans (100 MB, 300MB) for a rather high price. AT&T charges 20 USD for 100 MB (http://www.wireless.att.com/cell-phone-service/cell-phone-plans/pyg-cell-phone-plans.jsp), T-Mobile 10 USD for 100 and 30 USD for 300 MB (http://www.t-mobile.com/shop/plans/prepaid-plans.aspx#MobileBroadbandpasses) and Sprint doesn’t really offer one (at least I couldn’t find one).

I am willing to spend 20, maybe even 50 or 70 USD for my mobile internet during my stay. I like being able to access Google Maps while walking around foreign cities, I like using Google Navigation on my phone, I just love to google something while being in a pub discussion e.g. about which year Kurt Cobain died.  But there is a second, even more significant problem:

b) Unbeknown to be up to recently (when I looked into it while preparing my trip) there are different kinds of “3G” and “4G” in the US. While here in Europe the normal definiton of 3G is UMTS + HSDPA + HSPA  and our definition of 4G is either WiMax or LTE and all mobile network operators use pretty much the same frequency band, this is completely different in the US. First of all, 3G can either stand for UMTS or other techologies (probably CDMA) and 4G can be anything from LTE to HSPA+. So the underlying technologies are completely different. Even worse, if you have a UMTS phone that works in Europe (such as I have with the HTC Desire), this does not mean that it’ll work in the US. The reason for this is

c) Even if it says “UMTS”, this does not necessarily mean that your phone will work. Take the Desire as an example. It’s a quad-band phone, so it’ll operate on pretty much any GSM network around the world. However it’s UMTS frequencies are limited to 2100 Mhz and 900 Mhz, which are common in Europe. The US however uses different freqencies. So you will most likely not be able to use UMTS in the US – unless you are on the AT&T network and own an iPhone; or a Telia branded HTC Desire for that matter.

This is due to the different frequencies and bands used. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_UMTS_networks and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UMTS_frequency_bands for a thorough explanation of this.

Even worse, you cannot even keep your phone in the US and switch carriers. The iPhone 3, 3S and 4 all work perfectly with the AT&T UMTS network, however if you try to operate them in the T-Mobile US network, they will find a signal, but only GSM / GPRS / EDGE, because not even the iPhone supports the UMTS frequencies used by T-Mobile.

This of course explains their ridiculous pricing policy and why buying your phone without being bound to a contract is not so common in the US alltogether.

So, I’ll have to choose between either having a GPRS network connection only or ditching the plan of buying a prepaid SIM alltogether. Yay. Not. And yes, you can guess for what I’m going…

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