I’ve been with AT&T since day 1, and have a love hate relationship with them. They work pretty well, have as a good a range of devices as anyone, but they charge too much. When it comes to international travel, I personally value access to data above voice. That said, I still recall two conversations in Africa trying to find our travel agent which cost around $50 each for a few minutes of getting the run around.
AT&T international data is pricey. If you pay by the MB it can be $2 per, so downloading a few photos or using turn by turn navigation for a trip can really add up. Thankfully they have a package that you can buy with a block of data:
One cool thing that I’ve noticed is that they’ve allowed me to retroactively apply the data plan. On one recent trip I had to pull up a copy of my passport from dropbox on my phone, and after much faffing saw a bill of about $100 for the trip. I applied a $30 120MB package to the account on my return, and it adjusted the bill down, removing the data fee.
Let’s be honest though, even though $30 was cheaper than $100, 120MB isn’t much, and $30 is cheeky as hell, so i’ve been researching alternatives. Despite having a grandfathered unlimited data plan with AT&T, I found that I’m on Wifi so much these days that I only use about 1-2Gb of data a month, all in I pay about $80 for that with an iPhone.
T-Mobile vs Project Fi
Both of these companies are changing the game for international phone use. T-Mobile is better known, but I’m hoping that Project Fi will be better, since T-Mobile sucks, at least it does based on my trial of them. While I want the unit primarily for travel, it would be nice to have a device that handled itself well in the US also, so I could drop to just one phone.
Why I’m hopeful for Fi
Fi runs on two networks, T- Mobile and Sprint. On a high level (without doing real research) I figure that means if T Mobile sucks for coverage where I am, there’s a chance Sprint doesn’t, so I might get better coverage. The theory is that they hand off between the best available 4G LTE to keep you with the strongest signal out of these carriers.
- T-Mobile starts out at $50 for 2GB. I like to think of that as $30 for the line, $10GB per gig, with a 2 gig minimum.
- Project Fi starts out at $30 for 1GB. It is $10 per gig of data, so in an apples to apples comparison, I get a phone line and 2GB for $50 with T-Mobile, and $40 with Fi.
Internationally, they both charge $0.20 per minute for voice calls in most countries.
Using the data
T-mobile’s 2GB (or whatever plan you spring for) refers to how much 4G LTE you get in the US before you get kicked onto the slower network. There isn’t actually a limit on your data, just on your speed. International data is also unlimited, and does not tap into the 2GB plan.
Project Fi has a flat rate for their data, if you are on the 2GB plan, it counts both here in the US,and Internationally – if you go over the 2GB you pay more, but not with a penalty. However, they also rebate you for data that you don’t use. For example, if you were on a 2GB plan and used 2.5GB, you’re bill for data would be $25.
On the surface, T Mobile may sound more generous, due to the unlimited nature of it, but in reality, with Fi, you pay for what you use, to the 0.1GB and therefore it makes it cheaper.
All about the speed
An interesting point about the two networks internationally is that T Mobile tends to push you onto 128K networks (the old 2g) which are painfully slow, whereas Fi will run on 256K (3g) speeds. This is an massive change. I tried just to load andrewdoronin on T-mobile on 2g (the best I could often get in many places near me) and it just wouldn’t do it. I gave up after waiting minutes. On 3g, it’s a few seconds of lag.
T-Mobile has most devices available. I took an iPhone 6s for my test drive, and as I’m in a Mac ecosystem I like the idea of having that. Fi is only officially supported on 3 devices, Nexus 5x, 6 and 6p. Both companies offer a monthly payment plan.
Project Fi Data Only Sim
This is even newer than Fi.. they just released a data only sim that can be added to a broader array of devices. The forum at Fi mentions that it works with iPhones, tablets, hotspots, and some laptops, although only a fraction of those are listed as being ‘officially’ supported. At the moment, it seems you need to be on the Fi phone plan to access a data Sim, i’ll see if I can get my hands on one to test out if the phone is any good. This aspect might be a real game changer, as having iPad cellular for $10 per Gig internationally would be pretty cool.
On paper, Fi is superior to T Mobile, but lacks devices at this time. I’m hopeful that my Fi phone will live up to expectation, since the T Mobile phone that I bought (and am returning) really wasn’t good at all. Note if you do buy a T Mobile phone you have only 14 days to return it and exit the ‘lease’, and when you do you have to pay a $50 restocking fee.
My plan is to take the Fi phone overseas with me to test the data speeds, and if it works well keep it, likely as a backup/travel device.
For those of you like me who are fed up with AT&T and on the unlimited plan, note that they are changing the price next month by $5 which allows you to exit the plan without an Early Termination Fee (ETF).
Thanks to a number of people for helping with datapoints for this post, including Sriki on the forum for the ETF reminder, and Amol on Twitter for helping explain T Mobile.