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Keeping Lines of Communication Open Is Hard When Overseas

Travel: Executives, faced with few roaming agreements or uniform technologies, combine tools to connect.

April 18, 2002|JEFFERY D. ZBAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alan Reiter recently spent four digitally disconnected days in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Although he owns a BlackBerry 957 e-mail device, Reiter found himself cut off from electronic messaging, 5,000 miles from his Chevy Chase, Md., office. BlackBerry has no service in Brazil.

Staying digitally connected is tough for world travelers, said Reiter, president of technology consulting firm Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing. "You really have problems."

As the business world becomes digitized, access to crucial data often gets severed when executives travel abroad. Wireless Internet connections are hard to make because of different communication technologies around the world and the lack of roaming agreements between wireless service providers and the cellular companies whose networks carry their content.

About 70% of the world uses the GSM, or global system for mobile communication, standard for cellular phone networks. Not the United States, said Tony Carter, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless in Atlanta. Cingular, for example, serves only California, Nevada and parts of the Southeast with GSM--or less than 30% of the company's market area, he said.

The technology conflicts have made some of the most popular U.S. devices useless overseas. Research in Motion has separate U.S. and European networks for its BlackBerry hand-held. Only the company's new 5820 international wireless digital and phone device receives e-mail forwarded to the user in Europe from a server in the United States, a spokeswoman said.

Connections slowly are being made. Users of the Handspring Treo 180 communicator can access their data if their cellular providers have international roaming agreements. Connections can be made for e-mail, SMS (short message service for mobile phones) and wireless Web, depending on the country.

Some companies combine tools to create connections. When Tim Roper, senior director of business development with Palm Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., travels to London, he slips a Bluetooth networking card into his Palm M515. The card enabled Roper's Palm to use his Bluetooth-equipped Sony Ericsson T68 GPRS mobile phone to make an Internet connection and check e-mail.

His phone can get network coverage because his carrier, Cingular, has roaming agreements throughout Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe and some parts of Latin America.

"It's just like I'm on an Internet terminal somewhere," Roper said. The cost? About $399 for the M515, $129 for the Bluetooth card and $199 for the T68 phone plus his air time and roaming costs.

As for Reiter, he has a game plan for his four yearly visits to London. He uses a $300 British cell phone, the Virgin Mobile prepaid wireless telephone and e-mail device. Reiter spends about $15 a year in prepaid minutes for wireless Web access and e-mail.

Because it's a short message service, the Virgin phone will download only the first 200 characters or so of a message, Reiter said. But it's better than when he's in Asia or Latin America and he's totally disconnected.

Other solutions include world phones, which use a combination of frequency bands to access wireless networks in many international markets. Satellite phones use orbiting satellites to make connections. Both are expensive, with phones starting at $900 and service running from $1 to $2 a minute.

Eventually, digital convergence is supposed to deliver the full range of wireless services to one device that can be transported anywhere--and still work.

Until more international roaming agreements are forged, and technology becomes more uniform globally, world travelers can expect continued missed messages, said Malcolm Spicer, editor for wireless technology at PBI Media in Potomac, Md.

In the meantime, travelers should call their digital provider before departing to see what countries have such agreements, Spicer said. Other options? Check with airlines or go online to see if airports have vendors that rent wireless data devices.

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