Global Road Warrior: Phone Home

By Jonathan Spira on 1 March 2007
  • Share

It’s been said that the telephone is one of the most important business tools ever invented.  Today, given the popularity of the mobile phone, that statement is more true than ever.

The Bosch World 718, introduced in 1998, was the first true world phone.

The Bosch World 718, introduced in 1998, was the first true world phone.

Why is it then that many business travelers fall off the communications grid when they travel internationally?

Perhaps the greatest reason is the fact that the United States has multiple mobile telephone standards (the two most popular are CDMA and GSM, but there are others as well).  The rest of the world, with the exception of Japan and some parts of South America, uses only GSM.

GSM was developed with the business traveler in mind.  In 1982, the Groupe Spécial Mobile (GSM), a study group, was created by the Conference of European Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT) to combat the problem of incompatible mobile phone systems in European nations.  One of the goals of the GSM was to create a pan-European system that would allow a business traveler to drive across multiple national borders while continuing the same phone call.

The rest, as they say, is history: GSM specifications were published in 1990 and the first network went online in 1991.  Today, out of 2.53 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, 83% are GSM and UMTS (the 3G successor to GSM).

To keep business travelers connected, here is a primer on everything you need to know on the subject.

For starters, not all GSM phones will work everywhere.  Phones from different countries operate on different frequencies, although these are standardized by region.  So a GSM phone designed solely for North America won’t work in Europe.

To combat this, the multi-band mobile phone was designed.  The first was the World 718 introduced by Bosch in 1998.  I remember the first time I used mine (also in 1998); en route to a meeting in Berlin, I made a stop in Zürich.  After disembarking, I turned the phone on and was amazed to see Swisscom pop up on the screen (I was rather skeptical back then).  Calling was as easy as dialing from the U.S.  And anyone who dialed my phone’s number from the U.S. found me across borders and time zones.

With the right phone and service (see Selecting Your Service Provider), executive road warriors can place and receive calls in ca. 190 countries, with wireless data roaming in more than 100 countries.

TIP: Be aware of time zone differences and turn your phone off when going to sleep.  With time differences of many hours, someone may wind up calling you while you are sound asleep.

Technology has improved greatly since 1998.  Now instead of tri-band phones, we have quad-band and five-band phones.  I’ve looked at almost every phone out there and selected the best performing and easiest to use phones for your consideration.

See reviews of four world phones, the Research in Motion BlackBerry Pearl, the Palm Treo 750, the Palm Treo 680, and the Sony Ericsson W810i.


GSM – Groupe Spécial Mobile (Global System for Mobile Communications), 2G (Second Generation Mobile Phone Technology) voice service, offered by T-Mobile and AT&T (formerly Cingular) in the U.S.

GPRS – General Packet Radio Service, 2G data service, offered by AT&T and T-Mobile

EDGE – Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution, an enhancement of GPRS, sometimes referred to as 2.5G, average throughput of 80 – 130 Kbps, offered by AT&T and T-Mobile

UMTS – Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, 3G voice service, offered by AT&T and T-Mobile (planned for 2007)

HSDPA – High Speed Downlink Packet Access, 3G data service, average throughput 550-800 Kbps, offered by AT&T and T-Mobile (planned for 2007)

CDMA – Code Division Multiple Access, 2G voice service, offered by Verizon and Sprint in the U.S.

CDMA2000 – a family of 3G mobile telecommunications standards and the second generation of CDMA technology.  Offered by Verizon and Sprint in the U.S.

SIM – Subscriber Identity Module, a smart card that holds the telephone number of the subscriber, encoded network identification details, the PIN,  and other user data including the phone book


Both T-Mobile and AT&T offer GSM service in the United States and allow customers to roam internationally.  In most cases, you need to tell your mobile operator that you will be roaming internationally but there is no charge for having this added to your account.

In general, I have found that T-Mobile offers better pricing but this isn’t always the case (see chart, International Roaming Fees).  AT&T offers discounted rates for calls from ca. 80 countries if you sign up for the company’s World Traveler program (a $5.95 per month fee).

If your mobile is unlocked, you can insert a local SIM (see glossary) and place and receive phone calls at the same rates as locals.  In most countries, incoming calls are free under the Calling Party Pays (CPP) system. This means that calling a mobile phone number from a landline is more expensive than calling another landline phone.  Incoming text messages are also usually free.  A prepaid SIM can be purchased from almost every local mobile operator (examples would include A1 in Austria, T-Mobile in Germany, SingTel in Singapore, and Vodafone in the U.K.)  Be aware that most prepaid plans are good only in their home region and roaming across a border will result in roaming fees that are generally higher than those charged by U.S. mobile operators.

An additional option is to use Skype or a similar Voice-over-IP service, where rates are generally pennies per minute.  A laptop or phone with Wi-Fi capabilities is required to access the service, as is access to the Internet.


Most mobiles purchased with a contract from a mobile operator are “locked,” which means one cannot use a different mobile operator unless the device gets unlocked.  T-Mobile will provide an unlocking code for customers who are traveling overseas as long as they are not a brand new customer.  In addition, there are scores of legal unlocking services which, for a fee, will provide a code to unlock one’s mobile.


Calling from                T-Mobile WorldClass AT&T   AT&T World Traveler*

Australia                     $1.49                          $1.69              $1.29

Belgium                       $ .99                           $1.29               $1.29

Austria                         $ .99                           $1.29                $ .99

Finland                        $ .99                           $1.29                $ .99

Germany                     $ .99                           $1.29                $ .99

Greece                        $1.49                           $1.29               $1.29

Hong Kong                $1.49                           $2.29               $1.99

Israel                          $2.99                           $2.49               $1.99

Malaysia                    $1.99                           $2.29               $1.99

Qatar                           $1.99                           $2.49               $2.49

Taiwan                        $1.49                           $1.99               $1.29

Text msg (sent)        $ .35                            $ .50                $ .50

Text msg (rec’d)      $ .10*                           **

*or pulled from monthly bucket

**charges vary based on individual plan

(Source: T-Mobile and AT&T Web sites)

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

Accura News

Read previous post:
Four World Phones

RESEARCH IN MOTION BLACKBERRY PEARL Both T-Mobile and Cingular offer the BlackBerry Pearl by Research in Motion, although only T-Mobile...