I'm starting this piece with a full disclosure of my current state of mind: I'm angry, refusing to remain silent any longer! I'm not here to talk about gorgeous unspoiled beach hideaways or the new "must see" far-flung destination that should be on top of your travel radar (that'll be my next posting). Instead I'm taking this time to speak publicly about an item of maddening frustration every world traveler suffers with, but is powerless to solve or to combat: your cell phone!
When you leave your country of residence your phone suddenly (often stealthily) transforms itself into your sworn enemy. A 21st-century necessity without which most of us cannot function (smart phone users know precisely what I'm talking about), your cell/mobile is a tool for oral communication, a GPS, a texting machine, a web browser, a gaming device, a mathematician, a meteorologist and your travel companion -- but it's a travel companion who hates you.
Telecommunications industry giants around the world have insured, through what seems to be a malicious money-grubbing cabal, that international travel of any sort -- even the most benign crossings between the United States and Canada -- will result in cellular telephone bills that defy rational thought. To the unsuspecting first-timer, a mobile phone can sit calmly in a your front pocket providing an invaluable service to while exploring that "must see" far-flung destination. While in the dark unseen world of AT&T-land or Orange-opolis the price tag for services normally costing fractions of pennies at home, skyrocket into insanity.
Make no mistake: This is no accident!
Cell phone providers love world travelers like us. They salivate at the very idea of us planning our next great trip and taking those first steps onto the plane, steps that can lead to monetary ruin.
How many of you have gotten back from a vacation to find a cell phone bill larger than your monthly rent? How many of you are shocked when you discover that crossing the Canadian border -- even just a few feet because remember your phone is also a GPS, it always knows where you are -- launches the price of one simple text message (no more than 160 characters please or we'll charge you for two messages) from "included in your plan" to between 50 cents and $1? How many of you have pondered what a "megabyte" truly is when a foreign network kindly reminds you (with a text message that probably costs you money) that your data rate is now $19.97/Mb?
"Can I use my map function to find where I am?" you wonder. "Is that more or less than one Mb? $20.00 seems like a lot of money to help me find that tapas restaurant the locals told me about."
Have you ever sent a mass text message (in your home country of course, you can't afford to send a mass text overseas) trying to explain to your friends never to call you again for fear that a phantom ring (yes, just a ring, not even picking up the phone) will cost you $2.49/min each time it happens on your exciting trip to India you've been waiting all year to take? Your bill can jump hundreds of dollars, and you never spoke to a single soul.
How many times have you canceled your phone's voicemail before a long European trip because the simple act of your friends, work colleagues or family leaving you messages would run you upwards of $1.99/min (listening to it also costs $1.99/min so best to just ditch voicemail all together you think). When I canceled the voicemail on my iPhone last year the international billing customer service representative at AT&T told me the best way to protect myself from hidden charges was to "always leave my phone off" when traveling abroad. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of having the phone in the first place?
AT&T's international plans are so complicated and designed to flummox even the most adept of us that they need their own customer service department to handle the chaos. I've walked into several of their outlet stores and asked a real live human being to go through the plans with me step by step, only to be told that they are forbidden from discussing the subject of foreign travel without special training that only the international billing customer service representatives can provide (the "just leave your phone off" people).
It's not just American cellular companies that are in league with the devil; it takes two to tango. The reciprocal telecommunications behemoths in your gorgeous unspoiled beach hideaway nation are just as culpable for your phone turning against you. Anyone traveling to Central America has seen first hand the power of "The Tigo." Their logo and advertising is in every airport, every hotel and every convenience store, on every restaurant sign, every telephone pole and every bathroom stall ("For a Good Time, Call Tigo," which is ironic since Tigo makes money every time you make a call).
A recent trip to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau for my 30 Postcards Project gave me the most shocking look yet at the utter insanity of the mobile industry. Stefan cel Mare (Chisinau's main drag) has so many Orange outlet stores on it that I stopped counting upwards of 20, and this is just one street. In the most extreme cases there were Orange outlets on three out of the four corners at an intersection (and I'm sure that's only because the business on the fourth corner is holding out for a larger payout). It begs the question: How many cellular stores need to pop up in one location before we all admit we have a serious problem? And the problem is not getting better, it's getting worse!
On a trip to Norway, a text message sent to a close friend there became caught in an electronic Groundhog Day. The same message was delivered to his phone at least every hour for days at a time (sometimes as many as five in one hour during the late night hours). What was meant to be a charge of $0.40 ballooned into 10s and then 100s of dollars, taking hours of time on both of our parts to sort out. Oh, and since the message was 162 characters long, technically it was two text messages sent over and over again.
If you live in Bangladesh you're well aware of the power of cell phone Goliaths because their monoliths of power surround you, no matter how remote your living situation is. Never in all my travels have I seen so many cell towers packed into one nation. Every single town, village and outpost (some without names) has at least one and in some cases dozens of towers looming over the local population. Good news for travelers to this heavily populated Asian nation is that no matter how remote you think you are (the middle of the Sundarbans for example), you'll have a clear and crisp cell signal ($2.99/min).
I met a woman in Turkey who felt as though she'd solved her world traveling telecommunications nightmare with an awkward looking necklace. Her necklace was actually a SIM card clip she wore around her neck containing eight SIM cards representing different mobile providers in different nations. Besides looking like a fashion victim, she had the unfortunate problem of having to remember which of her three cell phones went with which cards and what her phone number was at any given time. She was certain not to give her hard-earned travel money to one single telecommunications monster, but she was in essence piece-mealing it out to several of them instead (and sadly she looked like a walking electronics store).
At the dawn of 2012 I issue a serious challenge to the entrepreneurial business community. If competition within markets is alive and well in the 21st century I want you to prove it to me and my fellow globetrotters. It's way passed the time for a world cellular plan; a phone that can travel anywhere -- within reason of course; no need to put cell towers in Antarctica -- and pay one reasonable and competitive rate on every common network technology which phones have been invented to access. I know for certain the technology exists because AT&T abuses me with it every month and Amazon's whispernet also allows me to download books for free using it.
I don't want to hear complaints about government corruption or "to big to compete with." The first company to produce such a product will have every travel writer from here to Antarctica (where there will still be no cell towers) endorsing it. Put a stake through the heart of a vampiric telecommunications devil, and force them down to a non-abusive pricing scheme that doesn't make a budget vacationer choose between sending a text message or eating breakfast. All the components to make a world cell phone have existed for over five years now, and it's time we all let our providers know we're sick of the bull. To travelers I say voice your opinion and "Occupy" something if you have to, and to business I'll borrow a phrase from Tim Gunn, "Make it work!"
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