ATT + iPhone int'l. roaming data horror story: $3K bill - UDPATE

UPDATE, 12:18PM PT: Dave says, "AT&T just called and agreed to waive all charges due to the 'miscommunication.' I think they have a customer for life now."

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BoingBoing reader Dave Stolte says,

I have a caveat emptor to top them all. I purchased an iPhone on opening day to use in lieu of a cumbersome laptop while traveling in Ireland and England for two weeks in early July. AT&T promises "easy, affordable, and convenient plans" in their advertising... turns out I got two out of three.

On the way to the airport, I activated the per-use international roaming data plan - the only one offered to me. The rep quoted me $.005 per KB but did not disclose what that would translate to in layman's language (i.e., X amount per e-mail, X amount per web page, etc.). I'm a web developer as part of my career and I couldn't even tell you how many KB the average web page is, no less a text message to my son, an e-mail with a photo to my mother, or a quick check of Google Maps. That's part one of the trap. However, I now pay $40 per month for unlimited data usage on the iPhone, so really -- how much could it be? $100 at the most, right?

Keep reading.

As we know, the iPhone can't be unlocked to use a European provider's SIM card for more reasonable rates while traveling. There's part two of the trap.

To be safe, I went online to My Account at AT&T a couple days into the trip and again a week later and was told "usage data is currently unavailable"... and that's part three. I had no way of knowing specific usage data until I received my bill over the last weekend.

A bill for $3000.

Two weeks of travel with sporadic AT&T EDGE network usage off and on mixed with wifi when available... $3000.

Doing some research, I learned this morning that AT&T offers unlimited international data usage at $70 per month to its Blackberry customers.

Here's my bottom line: I want this same usage plan to be made available to iPhone customers and to be applied retroactively to my account.

Billing phone reps offered me a $400 "courtesy credit" on the $3000 charge if I would agree to sign up for a $300 per year international data plan with a max of 20MB per month. (I'm not planning any international travel for a while anyway, but 20MB would be burned in a day or two of average use - they must be kidding.) I have until August 14th to resolve this or all my family's phones (including my wife's business line) get disconnected. Obviously, there's no way I can pay $3000 for something so egregiously wrong.

I'm writing you in the hope that the exposure of my story might force AT&T's hand in admitting they have an inadequate solution in place for international iPhone users, that they've discriminated against the iPhone in favor of the Blackberry, that they failed to adequately disclose the exorbitant nature of their rate plan, that they kept me in the dark about my usage specifics until it was too late to modify them, and that by disallowing unlocking to use a European provider's SIM with more reasonable rates, I was trapped without knowing it until that $3000 "gotcha" came knocking at my door.

Thanks for your time, and please do not hesitate to contact me ( with any further questions.

Reader comment: Ryan Kerr says,

I love boingboing and have been reading it for years, but this is the first time I have been motivated to email one of the editor's. I manage an ATT dealership. We are not allowed to sell iphones because Apple's contract with ATT only allows ATT corpororate stores and Apple store to sell the iphone. Dealer's generally have way more experience than the kids in the corporate mall stores, and definetly have more experience than someone working in an Apple store that has never sold cellular products. The decision to not allow dealer iphone sales also forces people who do not live close to a corporate ATT store or an Apple store to purchase their phones over the internet. Any experienced Dealer would not have let this guy leave without an international Data plan.

p.s. someone who is a web developer should know how many kilobits different basic online tasks use, or at least have known that any per Kilobit charge will be through th roof.

P.S.S. The customer was probably charged more than the amount in his contract for Data roaming as the foreign wireless companies can charge whatever they please...

Jason Coyne says,
While I sympathize with Dave and his situation with the iPhone, part of the story really doesn't mesh. Dave has a career as a web developer, yet not know how large the average web page is, or how many bytes are in email or images. Page weight is a very important part of page design, and it seems unusual for him to claim he didn't know the amount of traffic he was getting.

Also, in comparison to the "verizon can't do math" stories, there was no misquote to Dave about the data rate.

Should AT&T offer the unlimited international data plan? Yes. Should they offer unlocking? Yes. Are they obligated to do either? No. Did Dave use the service, knowing he wasn't on an unlimited plan? Yes. Should Dave be responsible for his own actions? Yes.

The only part that mitigates things in Dave's favor, is that they didn't have a way to let him get his usage. Thats what he should focus on if he tries to pursue things with AT&T. Everything else was a voluntary choice he made on his own.

One other thing occurred to me. At $0.005/kb a $3000 bill would mean 600,000KB of data, or 600 megabytes (minus whatever his normal plan cost, so say $100-200 to be generous). 600 Megs is a rediculous amount of data to send over an phone connection with EDGE only, and there is no reasonable way you could get there in just browsing and email, unless you were sending and insane amount of attachments via email. The phone has no tether option, so the normal culprit of games and P2P sharing are not applicable. There could be some other issue at play, like each GPRS session being rounded up to the nearest 10k or something like that, which would vastly inflate his usage numbers, and that would also be an avenue for fighting the bill.

I did find a comment from Dave on a different website mentioning that he was misquoted on the price. ($.05 vs $.005) This is the same as the "verizon can't do math" story, and you have a good chance of having the bill reduced since they did misquote you. I highly suggest you read the "verizon can't do math" stories on the web, which will give you the right things to say to fight the bill (even though this is AT&T).

Anonymous says,
Felix was all over this a couple weeks back. The link details very precisely how the international data rates will hose you (regardless of who is a web developer).