Yes, You Can Spend $750 in International Data Roaming in One Minute on AT&T


Update: Thanks to Slashdot, BoingBoing and T-Mobile CEO John Legere for sharing this!

Apparently it’s possible to run up a $750 international data roaming bill in one minute on AT&T.

Last week, after driving across the Canadian border at Blaine, I got disoriented trying to double back to Highway 99. I pulled into an outdoor shopping mall, stopped into Notti Biscotti (couldn’t get on their WiFi) and turned on data roaming to take a peek at Google Maps.

My iPhone went to “No Carrier”, then gradually found a new carrier but didn’t seem to be getting any data. Google Maps wasn’t updating. Within 60 seconds, I turned off data roaming. Immediately after, I received a text from AT&T that they’d suspended my data access in both countries due to high international data usage.

My phone was on AT&T’s U.S.-based LTE for the hours leading up to my Canadian border crossing – in other words, it and its apps were fully synced before I entered the country.

AT&T texted me about crossing the border at 1:02 pm and again with the account suspension at 1:08 pm. Most of the time in between was spent driving from the border to Notti Biscotti before I ever turned on data roaming.

AT&T's Texts Show How Quickly This Happened

AT&T’s Texts Show How Quickly This Happened

When I called AT&T later, I was surprised to learn my phone had used 50 MB of data bandwidth during my one minute of roaming. At $15.36 per MB, they said I owed more than $750. I tried explaining to the agent that I was happy to pay for data that I used but that my phone was unable to successfully acquire any usable data. I spent 28 minutes on the phone with the agent and his supervisor but they adamantly refused to reactivate my U.S. data service unless I agreed to purchase a $30 international data roaming package to cover the usage. They also were unable to document the bandwidth usage to any detail but this is partly understandable for privacy reasons.

As a five year customer, I felt the agents weren’t listening to me and instead wanted me to pay a ransom (albeit, not an overly expensive one) to buy back my data service.

According to SpeedTest, it is technically possible for an LTE-capable of iPhone to download 50 MB in less than a minute and it can upload even faster; a download rate of 10 Mbps is roughly equivalent to 1.25 Megabyte per second. Yet, PC Mag reports that Google Maps generally uses only 1.3 Megabytes per map cell.

I’d heard horror stories of people data roaming through Europe for several weeks to come back to thousands of dollars in bills – but AT&T’s measurements of my phone didn’t seem right.

I have a friend in network operations at AT&T and he wasn’t able to explain exactly what happened either – only saying that it was theoretically possible. Either because of my inquiry to him or because of my tweets at AT&T, a customer service person contacted me and refunded the data roaming package.

Studying AT&T’s own reporting of my bandwidth usage showed that there was actually no billing for data in the 73 minutes leading up to my border crossing. Then, at 1:05 pm they recorded 50.646 MB of international usage. Since my phone was on, charging and active during my entire drive up to the border, I think that AT&T may occasionally bundle bandwidth usage across carriers. I would have expected to see U.S. data usage right up until my border crossing at 1:02 pm – and then some international usage at 1:05 pm when I turned on data roaming. Instead, U.S. data billing stopped at 11:47 am. It’s possible AT&T’s systems aren’t technically able to distinguish bandwidth used across carriers – which would be alarming.

AT&T May Be Bundling Usage Across Carriers

AT&T May Be Bundling Usage Across Carriers

This isn’t the first time I’d seen anomalies in AT&T’s data metering. After purchasing my iPhone 5 with LTE in September 2012, my bandwidth usage skyrocketed from 421 MB and 556 MB in July and August to 1.6 GB and 1.7 GB in September and October. Certainly I was using more data because of the faster network but not that much more. The high usage continued until January when AT&T seemed to fix the issue and the high measurements subsided.

A Canadian friend who just visited me in Seattle wrote “after four days of using my data plan including maps, I just got notified I hit 100 MB of my 200 MB plan.” That’s about 25 MB per day of moderate usage.

International data roaming rates are egregious; the Wall Street Journal reports “the margins on global roaming charges exceed 90%…meaning that 90 cents of every dollar charged to a customer are pure profit.” And, yes, it’s technically possible to burn through $1,000 in less than 30 seconds of data roaming; the easiest way would be to upload a large video.

The morals of this story are that AT&T’s front-line customer service remains terrible and that I’m switching to T-Mobile as soon as the iPhone 6 comes out in September. T-Mobile offers unlimited data roaming in more than 120 countries.

Until then, I’m not touching the data roaming switch.

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  • Raoul Miller

    I had a similar, though less expensive, experience a few years ago with data roaming on AT&T in Canada. I was in Quebec City for 4 days and received a bill for data and calls linked to a tower in Saskatchewan. AT&T claimed that since it was all canada, it was a valid charge – refusing to accept that my phone could hardly connect to a tower over 2000 miles from where I was. They actually told me on the phone ” we don’t make mistakes about this kind of thing”

    After arguing with them for almost an hour I notified my company (who paid the bill) to see if they wanted to protest. No idea what the outcome was.

    I have also received international charges when I was in San Diego when the phone connected to towers in Mexico rather than in the us. But in that case, AT&T did refund the charge.

    TL:DR AT&T data billing and identification is garbage – fight it

  • Lisa

    I had a similar incident with AT&T and $3250 in international data later (eventually forgiven), I’m now with T-Mobile after 17 years.

  • Lisa

    Ugh…I meant that I’m with T-Mobile, sorry.

  • motrek

    Why wait until September to switch? T-Mobile will pay your early termination fees and I believe AT&T will unlock your iPhone after 30 days or 90 days (or something?) of being on-contract. Either that or I got confused and it’s T-Mobile that will unlock your phone after only 30 days. T-Mobile’s coverage is definitely way worse than AT&T’s but I’m happy to use them as they are shaking up the industry and being much more fair about pricing and features. I’m on their no-frills plan and they still allow tethering, which has been useful to me a few times already, when most other carriers are trying to figure out how to prevent people from tethering via jailbroken/Android phones.

    • http://wp.jeffreifman.com/consulting Jeff Reifman

      Yes, I’m working on getting my iPhone backed up, restored & unlocked.

      • motrek

        Sounds good. Should be a simple process of just plugging it into your computer and making sure it’s backed up locally by iTunes. (I don’t trust iCloud for this yet.) I would suggest grabbing your pictures from the phone manually in case something goes wrong. You don’t want to lose those.

        • http://wp.jeffreifman.com/consulting Jeff Reifman

          Yes, been running into fun iTunes error msgs that make you want to go slowly and ensure everything is backed up.

          • anon_coward

            just make sure you have the latest version of itunes and no software running that hits itunes. i’ve done it before with no problems

    • RedChief

      Welcome to Sprint then….

  • anon_coward

    yep, happened to my inlaws too

    i didn’t know they were taking their phones to mexico otherwise i would have added international data to my account. i called and they reversed around $400 of the $700 in charges

    next time buy an unlocked phone and a local SIM or get the international package. EVERY carrier in the USA does this and has done it for many years

    • motrek

      False, T-Mobile is now no longer charging extra fees for phone use to/in many foreign countries.

      • anon_coward

        saw that too
        might have to move my 4 line family account this year. 1 line expires in a few months and 2 more in january

  • Gerhard Mack

    This is why I prefer apps like Sygic for traveling since it downloads all of the maps in advance so I don’t have to care if I’m roaming or even if I have a data signal at all.

    • anon_coward

      navigon for iphone
      it’s like $50 but goes on sale a few times a year. i was in rocky mountain national park a few years back with my iphone 4S. no cell service. it knew where i was down to the lane on the road

  • Juan Genao

    I must be missing something, you can get 800 megs for $120 on ATT

  • bones boy

    One lesson should be to spring for a mapping program that installs completely onto your phone.

  • http://wp.jeffreifman.com/consulting Jeff Reifman

    Thanks for pointing this out – didn’t realize it. More detail here: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2113440/on-the-road-with-tmobiles-free-international-roaming.html Will be looking more carefully at the differences between TM and ATT

  • http://wp.jeffreifman.com/consulting Jeff Reifman

    No – the carrier would have switched. It’s pretty obvious when you switch & u get the notification text & i had roaming off.

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