“A tale of two prepaid SIM cities” – or, “Oh what a lovely war on roaming”

prepaid SIM
Image credit: Waldemarus / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I travel, typically the first thing I do when I arrive is buy a prepaid SIM card so I can have a data connection while I’m on the road. Like a lot of people, I do this because data roaming costs a fortune. Even if I buy a day pass from my service provider, it usually costs more than a prepaid SIM in most of the countries I travel to.

One thing I’ve noticed is that you can tell a lot about a country by the ease of which you can acquire a prepaid SIM.

For example, when I go to CommunicAsia in Singapore later this month, here’s what I’ll have to do to get a prepaid SIM and get connected:

  1. Go to one of the currency exchange booths by the baggage carousel
  2. Buy a prepaid SIM
  3. Stick it in my phone and follow the instructions, which takes less than two minutes.

Done.

By contrast, here’s what I had to do to accomplish the same objective when I flew to Chicago last month for a two-week holiday:

  1. Exit the airport
  2. Rent a car
  3. Drive to the hotel and check in
  4. Use the hotel Wi-Fi to find the nearest mobile phone shop
  5. Drive to the shop (which was nowhere close to walking distance, hence Step 2)
  6. Wait 20 minutes in the queue (provided there’s only one person ahead of me)
  7. Buy a prepaid SIM
  8. Have the shop clerk install it for me, verify it with the network and manually enter the APN info so the data connection will work, which takes about 20 minutes.

All those extra steps are due to the fact that they don’t sell prepaid SIM cards in O’Hare Airport – or possibly any American international airport (at least not the ones that I’ve flown to).

Here’s another interesting difference between the two experiences.

The Singapore SIM – which is a 3.5G SIM – works pretty much everywhere I go in Singapore, and usually provides HSPA-level coverage. Even when it drops to 3G, the connection quality is still pretty good.

The US SIM – which was described as a 4G SIM – never once provided a 4G connection, and in fact provided more 3G connectivity than HSPA. Also, because this holiday involved a road trip from Chicago to Knoxville and back, one of the usage scenarios I had in mind was to share the SIM with my wife’s phone via the hotspot function on my phone while we were driving on the interstate highways. The service provider’s coverage map assured us this would work. Turns out there are a lot more dead spots on the interstate than their coverage map suggests. And what coverage we did encounter was usually only able to offer an EDGE connection. (You remember EDGE, don’t you – it’s GPRS on steroids.)

Now, I know enough about cellular networks to know that it’s unfair to compare Singapore to the US in terms of mobile coverage – it’s challenging and expensive to cover a vast geography like the US with 4G connectivity outside of the suburbs, as opposed to a relatively flat island with 3 million people. And yes, it’s also challenging to provide a consistently fast data connection to a terminal in a moving vehicle. (There’s also a good chance my US experience was the product of preferential treatment for postpaid vs prepaid customers – I can’t prove that, but it’s not an uncommon practice.)

Also, I understand that LTE roaming isn’t as simple as 2G roaming, and that it’s only just in the last year or two that we’ve seen LTE roaming gain traction via IPXs, Diameter signaling, etc.

Also, in terms of the prepaid angle and the convenience therein, I realize a lot of that is to do with the fact that Asia – particularly Southeast Asia – has a healthy prepaid mobile culture, even in developed markets like Singapore where most local mobile customers are postpaid. The experience, price and value for money varies, of course, but generally if you’re a tourist and you want to get a local SIM, it’s not all that hard.

Prepaid culture exists to an extent in the US as well, but prepaid mobile services there are designed for local people who live from paycheck to paycheck and can’t commit to a postpaid plan. As far as I can tell, it’s not configured for travelers who just need a SIM card for a week or two.

I’m just saying – from a consumer standpoint, the difference in experience is noticeable. Understanding how and why it works doesn’t make the experience better.

And the only reason I notice it at all – apart from the strikingly drastic difference in convenience and experience – is because of the high cost of data roaming that necessitates me to buy a prepaid SIM in the first place.

And really, it’s not the cost so much as the lack of predictability of that cost. Voice minutes as a billing unit are easy to figure out. KB or MB units are much harder. Yes, this is what day passes were created for, but again, by my experience a prepaid SIM is usually cheaper, even in the US (which, by the way, is expensive enough that I realize how spoiled I am living in Asia).

Honestly, I’d rather not buy a prepaid SIM at all. I would much rather roam automatically with a simple, affordable per-day rate – something that you would think is achievable in 2017.

So Sunil Mittal’s war on roaming charges can’t come soon enough for me, is what I’m saying.

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