During my stay in the US I’ve discovered two great ways to pay less for mobile calls when travelling. The first is T-Mobile’s Blackberry 8320 with WiFi, which is incredible. It’s just like my Blackberry from Vodafone, except this has WiFi in addition to EDGE. T-Mobile (the fourth largest mobile carrier in the US) offers it with a global plan for EDGE traffic, meaning that they won’t charge you any roaming fee when you’re outside the country. So you can go to the US, buy this BlackBerry with WiFi and when you’re back in Europe you keep paying 40 euros per month (60 dollars) for the Blackberry service and voice minutes and you don’t pay for roaming. This of course is a great deal for those who travel a lot.

On top of this you get this phone’s incredible WiFi implementation, better then the iPhone’s. Not only you’ll never want to get back to EDGE for any kind of data transfer (pictures, attachments, web browsing), since download and upload speeds are way better with WiFi, but when you’re connected to a WiFi network (which happens automatically for any open network or, for free, for any T-Mobile WiFi hotspot) your voice calls and text messages are routed via WiFi too. This means that if you’re in Spain or wherever else you get access to a WiFi network, you can call like you are in the US, at US tariffs, using your plan’s minutes and with no roaming fees. I know there are other mobile VoIP solutions available for Nokia phones and other platforms but T-Mobile’s UMA service gives you seamless switching from the mobile network to WiFi and you can keep your number, while the WiFi connection manager on most Nokia smartphones is pretty bad, making the whole process a lot less immediate and practical.

When connected using WiFi with this Blackberry from T-Mobile, for example, you can call the US from Spain or China for 10 cents and calling Spain from China will cost you 54 cents (US->Spain tariff), still better then what Movistar, Orange or Vodafone charge you with roaming. Buying a T-Mobile Blackberry if you live in the US is a no-brainer, and if you live in Europe and travel a lot it’s a no-brainer as well. I spent 153 euros in July with my Blackberry from Vodafone just to download a few emails. And it has no WiFi.

The second great offer I found in the US is prepaid plans from AT&T, which give you free calls to anybody who’s on the AT&T network (something like a third of all US mobile users). With such a plan if you travel to the US with your family, like I do, and you have to give a phone to all your family members (I need 5), you can talk for free if you all have an AT&T prepaid plan. You get to the US, buy 5 SIM cards and talk for free with anybody who has AT&T, for just 20 euros per person. Calls to Europe cost you something like 1 euro per minute and calls to people in the US who are not on the AT&T network cost you 10c per minute plus $1 per day you use the phone. A family travelling to the US from Spain (or most European countries) with Movistar or Vodafone will be charged international rates to call and receive. Last year I spent 2300 euros for my vacations in the US. This year I just spent 150. And if you don’t have an unlocked phone you can get one with your prepaid card for nearly free.

Talking about unlocking, I just unlocked my iPhone using the 2.02 firmware. The process is a bit complicated but totally worth it. You don’t just get Installer, like with the old firmware, you get Installer, Cydia (an alternative to the Installer) and Apple’s Appstore. You can unlock any iPhone except the iPhone 3G which still can’t be unlocked to allow use with any SIM cards. I still have the EDGE model, since I always use my iPhone with Wifi and many functionalities are not allowed over 3G anyway (unbelievable you buy a 3G iPhone and you can’t download music over 3G, isn’t it?).

So I’m now in the US using an unlocked iPhone with a prepaid AT&T card (AT&T has much better coverage compared to T-Mobile) that I use for talking, music, photos and browsing via WiFi (data traffic is very expensive with AT&T prepaid plans), while I use the Blackberry for email, PINs and Google Talk.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Mike Sax on August 30, 2008  · 

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Martin Varsavsky on September 5, 2008  · 

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