How The iPhone Effect Makes Life Difficult For Roaming Travellers

American iPhone owners love their devices, but they're stuck with a single network — AT&T — that routinely drops calls and loses signal because there's so many people trying to use it at the same time. Unfortunately, that can have a flow-on effect even if you don't own an iPhone.

One of the reasons US iPhone owners jump so eagerly on rumours that another carrier will join the party is that everyone would (at least in theory) end up with better performance. In Australia, we've had a choice of iPhone carriers right from the start, and while Optus has a disproportionate share of the market (and its own network issues to contend with), there's always been alternative options. When there aren't alternative options, things can get nasty, as I was reminded over the past few days.

I was in Los Angeles this week (for the Adobe MAX conference), and making reasonably heavy use of my BlackBerry. I'm on a roaming plan from Optus which includes unlimited web browsing and email no matter where you are in the world, so I didn't have to worry about what the deal would cost. But it turned out I did have to worry about which network my phone roamed onto.

When my phone connected to T-Mobile, it worked like a charm. But when it connected with AT&T (which was the most common option), most of the time it never got as far as managing any kind of data connection at all — it just achieved a basic GSM link and then gave up. This problem became much more pronounced on the first actual day of the conference, when it was evident that there were thousands of others around in the same area, many of them toting iPhones.

Let's be clear here: this wasn't an earth-shattering problem (I had access to Wi-Fi a lot of the time), and it's a fault of AT&T's network design, not of the iPhone or the BlackBerry. Since I wasn't paying anything extra, I didn't have the fallback of righteous consumerism either. But I'm going to assume that roaming will be a nice bonus, rather than an expected feature, the next time I hit the US.

Had your own annoying roaming experience with an oversaturated network? Tell us about it (and perhaps what you did to solve it) in the comments.


    This is very interesting, especially coupled with how cheap T-Mobile is to get a temporary SIM card through. When a friend of mine flew in from Australia we added them to our T-Mobile family plan for a month for $30US total.

    Aside from having to untangle some low-level settings and limiting their iPhone to 2G mode, I don't believe they ever had a single problem while they were here in the states no matter which state we were in.

    If the option is available, perhaps simply switching the phone to 'manual network selection' and forcing it to T-Mobile network might help in the future? I've had to go that route before when travelling inside the US, and I'm a T-Mobile customer.

    Roaming on Optus in the USA? Ouch.

    Either get a local SIM, or try if you want to keep your Australian number contactable.

    Plenty of congested networks in the world - try India, Indonesia, Iran...

      The disadvantage of a local SIM is that it's often hard to get one which includes BIS.

        BIS is good just for the roaming plans. Roaming on my HTC Dream plan would be akin to paying per MB with a pound of flesh. $20.48 for roaming data per MB, that can add up really quickly with an iPhone or Android handset.

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