Spark Blog Notes from the Spark Team

February 25, 2013

Will Your Smartphone Work Abroad?

This week tons of industry folks will be heading to Barcelona, Spain for Mobile World Congress—one of the world’s largest mobile technology conventions.  Many of my colleagues are heading there and spent this week frantically switching to smartphones that are compatible with Europe.  Here’s a quick primer on how this works and a way to figure out if your phone can and will work in Europe.

Technology

Technical jargon first.  There are two pieces of hardware that your phone needs to get on a cellular network—a modem and an antenna.  Both the modem technology and the antenna band have to line up with a carrier in order to work.  For instance, if you want to use your Samsung Galaxy S3 on Verizon Wireless’s 4G network, you need an LTE modem with an antenna that broadcasts and receives the 750MHz radio frequency band.  If you don’t have the LTE modem and 750MHz antenna, your Galaxy S3 is not going to talk to their 4G network.  Sprint’s 4G network also requires an LTE modem, but they need an antenna that broadcasts and receives on the 1900MHz radio frequency band.

Smartphones are typically built with multiple modem technologies and multiple antennas so it’s possible your smartphone might work on your carrier in the US and abroad. Sites like www.phonescoop.com list out each carrier and smartphone so you can see can see the modem technologies and antenna bands.  But your wireless carrier likely also lists whether your phone is “Global Roaming” capable so you don’t have to dig too deep into modem technology and RF bands. 

Contracts

If you’re paying a carrier in the US for service (you likely are), your carrier likely already has an agreement in place to let you temporary use your Smartphone on the place you’re visiting. This is called “roaming.”  Here’s a list of the four major US networks, the countries they have roaming agreements with and the corresponding roaming fees.

AT&T Global Coverage and Rates

Verizon Wireless Global Coverage and Rates

Sprint Global Coverage and Rates

T-Mobile Global Coverage and Rates

If your phone has the modem and bands and your carrier has the agreements, you should be ready to rock.  Just call your carrier and let them know you planning to go so they have your calling and data capabilities authorized to work when you arrive.

Unlocking

It’s possible to directly buy data/voice plans in the country you’re visiting.  But if you plan on bypassing your U.S. carrier you have to make sure your modem and antenna aren’t “locked” via software to the US carrier’s network.  If they are locked, typically after 90 days, the US carrier will supply you with software “unclock” code so can use modem and antenna on any compatible network.

We welcome your thoughts, opinions, and comments (just be sure to adhere to our Posting Guidelines).