The Brancatelli File



June 2, 2005 (updated: October, 2006) -- My frequent-flying wife left for Costa Rica this morning, but not before indulging in her international departure ritual: Asking her techier-than-thou husband whether her ancient mobile phone, a relic of the old AT&T Wireless system that operates on the outdated TDMA network, will work where she's going.

My ritualistic response is: "Of course not." Then I go to my desk, pull out one of my GSM "world phones," push it into her hands and growl: "I keep telling you to get rid of that old phone. You're a business traveler. You need a phone that works around the world."

But funny thing about Costa Rica. It's one of those places where GSM, the putative world standard that works in about 210 countries, isn't all that popular. In fact, TDMA remains the cell-phone standard in the area of Costa Rica where she was headed. And since she keeps her old AT&T phone because it is the only one that works at her dad's house in rural Hawaii, she was feeling holier than your techier-than-thou scribe this morning.

My wife is wrong, of course--I can say that because she won't be back until after next week's column posts and she'll never read this in the archives (I hope)--but her stubborn loyalty to an old phone on an old network from a company that no longer exists is indicative of the quandary most American business travelers face.

What we want is simple enough: one mobile phone with one mobile phone number that works around the corner, around the nation and around the world. But what we can have is a lot more complicated: a patchwork of mobile phones on competitive worldwide mobile systems that work some times, in some places, under certain conditions.

Take it from your techier-than-thou scribe with a wife who won't part with an old mobile phone: There is no mobile phone that works every place, every time. There are only compromises, complexities and a thicket of mind-numbing network acronyms and mobile frequencies.

Looking for a telephonic silver lining? Here's one: If you choose carefully and accept the fact that the term "world phone" is more aspiration than reality, you can find a mobile handset that will do a credible job of keeping you in touch most of the time in most places.

"We are getting closer to having true world phones," says my friend Lloyd Tjom, who's also a former senior executive of T-Mobile USA, whose 23 million customers talk on the GSM network. "A billion people around the world now use a GSM handset."

But GSM is not seamless and it's certainly not a one-phone-fits-all standard. There are at least four distinct GSM frequencies in use around the world. Not every GSM handset has every frequency band so there's no guarantee that a GSM handset will work in all 210 countries where GSM exists. Moreover, important business-travel destinations like South Korea and Japan don't use GSM. Then there are quirky places like Costa Rica.

And there is the little matter of the United States, where GSM is not the standard. About 55 million Americans are customers of Verizon Wireless and they talk on an incompatible mobile network called CDMA. Sprint's customers use CDMA, too, but it merged last year with Nextel, whose customers use mobile phones that operate on still another incompatible network called iDEN. Together, Sprint and Nextel service about 50 million subscribers. Cingular, the nation's leading mobile phone company with 57 million customers, does use GSM, but not exclusively. Many Cingular subscribers are like my wife: AT&T Wireless users who became Cingular customers when Cingular bought AT&T two years ago and still carry phones that use the old TDMA network.

Unfortunately for the 110 million or so Americans using CDMA, iDEN or TDMA phones, those networks operate almost exclusively in North America. Frequent flyers who head overseas with those phones are usually out of luck. T-Mobile and Cingular will happily convert you to a GSM-compatible worldwide handset, of course, but the swap won't be without major compromises. By any objective measure, GSM service in the United States still doesn't match up to the ubiquity of Verizon's CDMA system.

Look at Verizon's U.S. mobile coverage map and you see nearly complete continental coverage. By comparison, the GSM coverage map shows gigantic blank spots. In many parts of the country, GSM signal is available only in narrow zones that parallel Interstate highways.

I know about GSM's U.S. limitations in a very personal way. Despite the fact that my T-Mobile GSM phones can call the United States effortlessly from Singapore or London or Rome, I can't call my wife from the warehouse club seven miles from our house. Within moments of leaving our nest on the river in New York's Hudson Valley, the GSM signal disappears. And while I am a citizen of the world, I can never remember which particular formulation of Tide my wife insists we use. So there I am in the laundry-supplies aisle, dead GSM phone in one hand, grocery list that just says "Tide" in the other, staring blankly at shelf after shelf of 300-ounce red containers. Again.

"GSM is not quite 100 percent nationwide," admits Tjom, the former T-Mobile executive. "We still have coverage challenges in rural areas."

Easy for him to say. He doesn't have to explain to my wife why I bought the wrong bottle of Tide. Again.

Must hard-working, Tide-challenged business travelers therefore choose between a mobile phone that works quite well at home but doesn't translate overseas or an international GSM phone that may not function around the corner? Does the wireless twain never meet?

That depends on you. There are some worldwide solutions, but they force you to balance your calling needs and choose the lesser of mobile evils.

If you live in a major urban area where GSM coverage is strong and you travel overseas more frequently than you venture into the American hinterlands, then your best solution is probably a multi-band GSM phone from T-Mobile or Cingular. Your cell coverage in rural and exurban America will be spotty, but your phone will work superbly in Paris, Sydney, Rio and most everywhere else on the planet.

Your U.S. mobile number will work effortlessly overseas, too. People calling you from America dial your mobile phone as if you're still in the United States. You can reach anyone in the world by dialing their phone number as an international call. Prices, at least from T-Mobile, are comparatively modest: 99 cents a minute to make or receive calls in most of Europe, for example.

And unlike the early days of GSM in the United States, almost all of the dozens of phones offered by T-Mobile and Cingular today operate on at least one of the two domestic GSM frequency bands (850 or 1900 Megahertz) and one of the two international GSM bands (900 or 1800 MHz). Obviously, more bands are better because the more bands that your phone accommodates, the better your coverage both in the United States and around the world. Tri-band and quad-band GSM phones from T-Mobile or Cingular are cheap enough. And if you buy your GSM phones from you'll sometimes receive more in rebates than you paid.

On the other hand, if you are an existing Verizon or Sprint customer and want to stick with them, you can now buy a mobile phone that works both at home and overseas. But your choices are extraordinarily limited.

Verizon, for example, offers just three world phones. They work on the company's CDMA network at home but they have also been outfitted with international GSM capability. These hybrids have major drawbacks, however. Verizon seems reluctant to sell them. (Neither the Verizon Web site nor sells them and many Verizon stores don't stock them.) They are heavy to carry (more than four ounces), pricey to buy (about $400) and even pricier to use: International calls cost at least $1.29 a minute plus an additional "international long-distance" charge that may be as high as $9.17 a minute.

Sprint's prices are about the same as Verizon's, but at least you can buy the phone at the Sprint Web Site.

If you're a Nextel user, you're out of luck because Nextel doesn't even offer a global phone. While you can use your Nextel number around the world, you'll have to buy a second Nextel handset configured for GSM service to do it.

(By the way, if you're an old AT&T customer like my wife, you're now paying a $5-a-month fee for refusing to switch to a GSM phone. And when you're ready for a new phone, Cingular will insist you switch to Cingular's GSM network. So make sure that it is at least a tri-mode model. And if Cingular wants you to pay for the privilege of switching to GSM, take your phone number over to T-Mobile. T-Mobile is cheaper than Cingular and its customer service is better. "Better" being a relative term in both airline and mobile phone circles, of course.)

If finding one mobile phone with one worldwide phone number that works around the world sounds too complicated or fraught with too many compromises, you can give up gracefully and stick with the admittedly unwieldy multi-phone scenario.

One alternate solution is to rent a world phone when you travel. Companies such as WorldCell will deliver an appropriate phone to your home or office before you leave for a trip. Prices start at about $40 a week plus per-call charges that start at about 99 cents a minute. Another option: Contact your hotel and have the concierge arrange to have a local mobile waiting for you when you arrive. You can also buy a world phone from companies like Telestial. Prices start at $179. Telestial will even outfit your mobile phone with a number that's local to the country you visit most frequently. (But remember: All of these rented or purchased world phones will have an international number and folks back home will have to make an international call to reach you.)

What's the best solution? Bluntly put, there isn't one. Choose the compromise that works best for your needs. If television sets and VCRs are any precedent, we'll be making global telephonic compromises for a long, long time.

A note to Elite and Executive JoeSentMe members: I've negotiated no-strings deals with Worldcell and Telestial for your benefit. Worldcell offers you free weekly international phone rentals. Telestial offers you 15 percent off purchases of international mobile phones and pay-as-you-go GSM SIM cards. Click the "Claim Your Discounts" link in the Member Services section of the JoeSentMe.Biz home page.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.