Browsing the web for $10,000 an hour

Over the years I've seen those stories about travelers who make the mistake of using mobile data services outside of their home countries and end up with ridiculously big phone bills. But I didn't realize how easily it could happen until my colleague, Nilofer Merchant (link), got her phone bill last week.

Nilofer recently made a business trip through Canada. While waiting in the Toronto airport for her flight home, she fired up her laptop. The WiFi service in the airport costs about $10 a day, so she decided to use her AT&T data card instead.

Big mistake. Big, big, big mistake.

When her phone bill arrived last week, the total charge for that airport session was $10,609.27.

Needless to say, this was a topic of pretty intense discussion at the office last week.

The stories I'd heard about people with big roaming bills were usually about someone on vacation who used data for a couple of weeks. I was very surprised to find that you could run up such a huge bill in just a few hours. Here's how it happens:

AT&T's Data Connect plan gives five gigabytes of data transfer a month, with additional data priced at five cents per megabyte. But when you're roaming in Canada, there is no prepaid data allowance, and the charge is $15 per megabyte -- 300 times higher than the charge at home.

Nilofer supposedly transferred 707 megabytes in that airport session, which adds up to over $10,000.

I'm not sure how she could have generated that much traffic in a few hours. She said she was doing normal business tasks, not watching videos. It's barely theoretically possible for someone to use that much data in the time available. PC World reports that AT&T's network can transfer about 1,400 kilobits per second (link), which means 707 megabytes could theoretically be transferred in a little bit over an hour. But that assumes a single continuous connection, running at full speed for the entire time. You're not likely to get that in a real-world browsing session, which is full of starts and stops.

You'd think AT&T would warn a customer when they're building up this sort of charge, but that's not the case. The only notification was two form e-mails AT&T sent after the data session was already over. The first said her data service had been shut off due to excessive charges, and the second --dated one minute after the first one -- warned of high usage. That message claimed that "AT&T has sent your end user multiple text messages regarding their high level of international data usage." No text messages were ever received, and in fact I don't know how you would send text messages to a data card.

But the biggest question is not how much data was transferred, or why AT&T doesn't notify customers properly; it's why the roaming charges are so high in the first place. There are a lot of excuses given for that by the operators, but what it comes down to is a cooperative effort between the operators to fleece each-others' customers when they roam. When AT&T customers roam to Canada, they pay 300 times the home rate for data. Meanwhile, when Canadians on the Rogers network roam to the US, they pay 200 times the home rate for data -- unless they have Rogers new One Rate plan, which eliminates roaming charges in the US (link).

The interesting thing about the new Rogers plan, which was introduced last month, is that it proves it's possible to create reasonable roaming charges throughout North America. The operators just choose not to. Because they make a lot of money from it.

The data roaming charges, and their impact on your bill, are not completely hidden by the operators, but they come pretty close. The information is scattered in several locations, and little or no effort is made to explain what the charges mean in practical terms. To find the charge at Rogers, you have to look on their website here, click on the "Legal Disclaimer" link in the tiny type at the bottom of the page, and scroll down to footnote 4. Unless you're technical enough to understand the difference between MB and kb, you may not even realize that roaming costs extra.

AT&T's site is almost as obscure. The company's page with tips on international roaming is here. It discloses the charges for roaming, but doesn't explain how those charges compare to home-country charges. As is the case with Rogers, you're expected to spot the KB vs. MB distinction, and know what it means.

AT&T also provides a helpful map showing its coverage in the US and Canada. Nowhere does it warn of the roaming charges for data in Canada.

The closest thing I could find to a warning about charges was another window with "laptop travel tips" that contains this message: "Your LaptopConnect service provides access to email, Web browsing, and VPN applications that can use a significant amount of data, so remember -international data roaming can get expensive quickly."

A more honest notification might be printed in big red letters, and would say something like this:

"Using wireless data outside your home country is about as smart as juggling chainsaws. In a single day, you can build up charges large enough to buy us a new car. We're constantly amazed that people keep falling for the roaming thing, but you know what PT Barnum supposedly said about suckers. If after reading this you're still stupid enough to use roaming data, please stop by our headquarters the next time you're in Dallas and we'll buy you a drink (although knowing you, we can probably stick you with the tab for that as well.)"

There's a continuous buzz online from people who have been caught by the roaming trap.

Adam Savage, co-host of the television show Mythbusters, had a similar incident last year (link). After he raised a stink on Twitter, the charges were dropped.

You can read some more examples here and here and here and here and here. It makes you wonder why some politician hasn't taken up this issue. A nice round of Congressional hearings would be fun (I'm looking at you, Nancy Pelosi).

In response to complaints in Europe, the EU recently regulated roaming fees and capped roaming data charges at one Euro per megabyte, about a tenth of AT&T's charge (link). As a rugged, individualistic American, I'm generally skeptical of the EU's reliance on the dead hand of regulation. But in this case, I congratulate my friends in Europe, and I say bring on the bureaucrats.


black magic woman said...

A couple of times a year, I get a Verizon data card when I go on vacation (in the States of course) and one of the single most irritating aspects of doing this is that they send a text message to the data card so that I can have online account access.

So I have to fire up the Verizon software (using Parallels on my Mac, on the pc side of my computer, because the mac side does not display text messages properly), and grab the text message to manage my account online.

This is important to do because that is the only way I can monitor my data usage accurately (though it is delayed by a few hours). The phone companies are not set up to help their customers control costs.

Also, in explanation of the 707MB of data. When I was on vacation, I was shocked to learn how much data I reportedly had used through the Verizon service and I attributed it to:

a) gmail (and the offline feature where it downloads X number of email messages to cache on the hard drive). I get a lot of attachments;

b) itunes podcasts - man, I turned off that auto-download feature in a heartbeat

c) dropbox synching.

This combination of things can use up a lot of data fast. Although 700+MB in an hour sounds a bit suspicious to me.

Unknown said...

Mike -

Quick point of clarity...I was in the airport bar for a bit over 2 hours -- but i had lunch while there. And having looked back at it, i sent the PPT file of the presentation i had done which is huge. i would have waited to send of course if i had known that the 5G data plan didn't apply in Canada.


Flash Sheridan said...

Thanks for the heads-up; I’ve recently submitted to indentured servitude to Ma Bell in exchange for an iPhone, and am already missing my Treo’s PayGo plan. I looked around the link you posted, and AT&T does seem to have a way to avoid this: Two downsides: They want to charge you $5/month, and it’s designed for children.

I did actually sympathize with AT&T’s recent complaints about bandwidth hogging (I’m in charge of my condominium’s shared ethernet connection, and have caught flak for dealing with a few inadvertent hogs), but AT&T seems to be discouraging the solutions it already has. For instance, not only do they block data on their own PayGo SIM cards, even for legally unlocked foreign iPhones (we tried a Swedish developer’s iPhone at our user group), but they also insist on making life difficult for their existing PayGo customers: The only way I could have ported my existing AT&T number to my new iPhone was to port the number back to T-Mobile first.

Marsha Keeffer said...

Another AT&T horror story. No wonder there is no such thing as 'carrier love.'

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the clarification, Nilofer. That probably explains the size of the download, but I'm still horrified that a single mistaken act can cause you to spend $10k without warning. It's like one of those sitcoms where someone accidentally buys a Picasso painting by scratching their ear at the wrong moment.

This is not a great way for the operators to build confidence in the mobile web.

Anonymous said...

1 - You can send a text to a data card and retrieve it on that same card.
2 - Carriers cannot immediately track real-time usage on a billing platform...any usage will be recorded AFTER the data session has ended, and up to a few hours afterward.
3 - I guess I just don't understand how someone can just assume that using your cell phone or other mobile device IN ANOTHER COUNTRY is not going to run up additional charges. Yes I agree this is excessive, but a call could have been placed to the provider BEFORE travelling to inquire.
4 - A call to the provider will probably result in a credit, since no one in their right mind could or would pay a $10,000 phone bill even if it appears legit. Call it a "misunderstanding" and ask for help. You'll most likely get it.

Unknown said...

Anonymous is right -- i should have known better and i do feel foolish.

There are two things. i have asked AT&T for an exception and at first they said yes and then said no. The second time, they wanted to lower the fee to $7K. which again, given what was delivered is craziness. It's data over a pipe. if it had been a $250 bill which would be 4x what my card costs me every month, i would have cried but paid it for being a fool. The actual value delivered is the same as my 5G card covers for $69- a month. and so going from $69 bucks to $10,000 is crazy.

The 2nd thing though is really this: it's fraudulent how they position this stuff and if someone without a voice or power goes through this, i am sure they just pay it. I am not normally a proponent for regulation but i'm convinced they are doing this to many people and it is wrong, wrong, wrong. So one reason i'm holding myself up as an idiot is to help raise visibility to a bad set of decisions ATT and the mobile industry seems to be think is okay. It's not.

Damon said...

It would be interesting for AT&T to justify their pricing policy for roaming based on actual expenses incurred. I rather doubt that they would be able to come up with anything close to $10k.

QualMod said...

T-Mobile has the same "hidden" data charges ($15 per MB). I'm traveling to the UK soon (from the US), using my Nokia N97 with a T-Mobile SIM card. Luckily, I had to visit the T-Mobile site beforehand to turn on their "International Roaming" feature before traveling: I just happened to stumble upon and read the hidden, "fine print." When I called to discuss they stated that some devices are "allowed unlimited coverage" (i.e., certain Blackberry models), but not others, thus the charges for my specific phone.

I had to do the math to figure out how many emails I send and receive per week X the average KB size of each email, divided by 1024KB (1 MG = 1024 KB), X $15 to estimate what my data charges MIGHT be. (T-Mobile has no "online usage" tracker/alerts either).

Also, I believe (I hope!) that I can limit the size of the incoming emails while roaming to ensure that if I receive an email with, for example, a 7MB PowerPoint attached, it won't go through! (Not only do they charge for what is SENT - but also for data RECEIVED).

But I had to figure all of this out myself...sneaky, sneaky, T-Mobile...

MikeTeeVee said...

Damon said "It would be interesting for AT&T to justify their pricing policy for roaming based on actual expenses incurred. I rather doubt that they would be able to come up with anything close to $10k."

Well, by the time they're done dealing with the complaint, the escalation, the counter offers, etc. they might have spent over $10,000 in admin expenses. ;-)

Chris Dunphy said...


There is just no way to justify jacking up data rates 300x, nor allowing customers to run up bills 100x normal without cutting them off.

It's as if the mobile carriers were just begging for regulators to step in.

I've run this story on our blog as well, and have included some tips on how people can protect themselves.

You can read our post here.

The other place people often get trapped is inadvertently roaming onto cruise ships. You can run up a huge roaming bill even if you never take your phone out of your luggage.

This sort of predatory billing should be criminal.


Alla Babin said...

That's all true. But there is a way to avoid all those roaming charges traveling abroad. There is a service introduced by, where you can rent a SIM card for your iPhone or any other smartphone and get free data roaming worldwide. So, you can basically use anything based on data for free: google maps, unlimited internet, e-mails, make voip over 3G calls, etc.
And those SIM's work with AT&T phones (no need to unlock or jailbreak them).

timmyhay said...

This is a complete failure of the mobile industry. The rates that operators charge each other are very high, so it is quite likely that the Canadian network is charging AT&T $5 - $10 per MB and AT&T is adding a mark-up.

The mobile industry has done a very poor job of adapting to this new mobile data world in a global sense. Legacy roaming thinking still permeates the model.

The best way to travel with a laptop is to purchase a local SIM card with some PrePay data loaded. But of course this is a little inconvenient.

And laptops will use a LOT more data than Smartphones with things like Antivirus and OS updaters sometimes kicking in in the background and using a lot of data.

This is actually one of the reasons why customers are going to adopt 'over the top' services (Skype, G-voice) so that they can be free of the Telco access and only use when absolutely necessary.

Anonymous said...

One cause of surprisingly large data transfers when using a laptop is unscheduled software updates. Many software licenses permit periodic checking for updates, and automatic downloads when updates are found. This is the case with Windows operating systems, anti-virus programs, and most other major software packages. Virtually no mere mortal knows how to turn these automatic updates off. I know slightly more than the average person about computers, but I've been caught with automatic downloads even after turning them 'off'.

--A fellow cell company victim abroad

Michael Mace said...

Anonymous wrote:

>>One cause of surprisingly large data transfers when using a laptop is unscheduled software updates.

Yes, definitely. There ought to be an (easy to find) setting in the OS that lets you say "conduct big downloads only over WiFi." Or at least the OS ought to warn you before allowing a large download session. But I'm not sure if there is a programmatic way to tell when a large download is about to happen (as opposed to a small one).