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.

Related Links

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.