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Can You Afford the iPhone Bill for International Data Roaming?

If you want to pay a flat fee for data roaming, that phone is not the iPhone

Kevin Hoffman's Blog

I was reading this article this morning, and it states that a family received a bill for nearly $4800 for their 3 iPhones. While it's certainly a tragedy that this family got billed for $4800 worth of charges, the fact that the article makes completely false claims about the operation of the iPhone takes away some of the sting of the bill and the credibility of the article writer.

Firstly, the person who got the bill says:

"They have periodic updates on their data files, and they translate into megabucks," Levy said. "This is akin to your bank having automatic access to your ATM machine and is siphoning money out during all times of the day and night without your knowledge."

Actually, no. Its nothing even remotely like that. Surely one can appreciate the man's anger, but statements like this indicate ignorance of how technology works. There is one single common thread here that you'll see. Here's a quote from another article that referred to the source article:

Because the iPhone, according to this Newsday story, checks for service updates and email whether it's turned on or off.

Ah the smell of sensationalist manufactured crap. Its sweeter than horse manure, yet more pungent than cow dung. So, if you go to the article that I linked, the one from Newsday, you'll see this statement:

 The iPhone regularly updates e-mail, even while it's off, so that all the messages will be available when the user turns it on.

So let me get this straight. According to the highly accurate, always correct Newsday, the iPhone updates e-mail when it is POWERED OFF. In short, this means that airplane mode (which disables all radios and data networks) is less connected than the phone when POWERED OFF. I see. The truth of the matter is that when you power off the device (as opposed to just clicking the lock button!), the device checks for nothing. It communicates with nothing. When the device is LOCKED (not powered off), it will honor the automatic e-mail checking schedule that the user has defined. By default, the e-mail is set to auto-check Manually. This means that in order for someone to have racked up $4800 worth of charges on their iPhone internationally they must have done the following:

  • Configured the device to automatically check for e-mail, which it does not do by default when you take it out of the box (the default value is Manual. You can prove this by resetting the device to the default values. It's Manual. It will not turn itself on from a powered off state and connect to the network and start downloading pr0n at $29.99 per megabyte without you asking it to do so.
  • Connected the device to a large e-mail box. One connection cost $232 according to the article. I realize that some people have a lot of e-mail on their iPhones, but I don't ever e-mail attachments to the phone, nor do I ever ask anyone to e-mail attachments to my phone e-mail. Even if I'm not paying for the data time, I'd rather not have my phone sit there sucking down e-mails for 10 minutes because I'm trying to download a giant photo of grandma rose eating pie that was taken with an 8 megapixel camera.
  • Neglected to realize the difference between single-clicking the lock button and holding the lock button down to truly power off the device.

Bottom line: Yes, AT&T's terms of service agreement is 6,700 words long and its hideous and difficult to read. However, so are the terms for every other cellular provider. If you have the patience to read through them, go for it. Everyone knows that even if we don't read the terms, we're bound to them by signing up for service, so not reading the terms is a calculated risk based on the idea that you might not accidentally violate a term you didn't read about. No, the iPhone does not automatically check for e-mail when powered off, and it can even be configured to not check for e-mail when powered on. Yes, AT&T could be a little more clear about how this works, and Yes, they could benefit from providing some kind of higher cost "international unlimited data roaming" plan to alleviate this problem. No, these are not charges for time the family did not use. Their phones were powered on, actively checking e-mail and probably downloading attachments from an international roaming location.

In addition, the person in the article complained and was offered a $1500 refund by AT&T.

While I certainly think AT&T could have done a lot more to avoid this situation, I don't think they should be refunding the charges in this case. If you leave your phone on, and your phone is configured to automatically check for e-mail, and you go abroad or into a roaming area, you will get charged for data roaming and you deserve to be charged accordingly.

If you want a phone that can connect to any network anywhere for data plan and pay a flat fee for data roaming, you are NOT going to find that phone on the AT&T network, and that phone is not the iPhone.

And before you ask - if this was me in this situation, I would be ridiculously pissed off. I would be punching walls and yelling and screaming and trying to convince AT&T to refund me all of my money. However, deep down I'd know that it was my own fault for letting my phone connect to download mail while I was abroad. If you really need to check your mail abroad, step into a cafe with a wireless hotspot and manually check for mail.

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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Most Recent Comments
Jim Wang 09/11/07 01:28:44 AM EDT

I think your article sucks and lacks compassion for people that are not so savvy about technology. iPhone is new device and one of kind. To assume everyone is as knoweldgeble as you are with technology is not a fair comparison. On top of that brining up AT&T's 6700 words of service agreement is rediculas. Those agreements are not designed to explain to people you'll be charged. They are designed to confuse you to not ever understand it.

I have been in technology and did several commercial software for nearly twenty years. I definitely believe the computer, iPhone or an Internet based gadget is still way too hard for non tech savvy people to use. Compare those devices with a household appliance say refrigerator in ease of use. These devices are way behind. And what do you think the Refrigerator manufacture post that yellow stick telling you how much energy bill will cost annually is all about??

Don Babcock 09/10/07 11:20:15 PM EDT

Even your ATM typically has a $300/day limit. You (or your kids) could rack up a lot of damage during an entire months billing cycle before you even realize it has happened. There is no reason that the carriers can't use their technology to offer a "governor" of sorts so that if the customer usage pattern suddently starts to spike, the customer is notified (via text message or the phone) to call customer service an verify the activity. Most banks and credit card companies now do that if your activity takes an unusual turn. This would serve to limit things before they got out of hand.

Chris Maeda 09/10/07 07:26:19 PM EDT

I keep my (t-mobile) blackberry on when I go to Europe and the data roaming charges are never more than a few dollars a day. $4800 in roaming charges (if true) is outrageous.

iPhone News Desk 09/10/07 11:23:21 AM EDT

'They have periodic updates on their data files, and they translate into megabucks,' Levy said. 'This is akin to your bank having automatic access to your ATM machine and is siphoning money out during all times of the day and night without your knowledge.' Actually, no. Its nothing even remotely like that. Surely one can appreciate the man's anger, but statements like this indicate ignorance of how technology works. There is one single common thread here that you'll see. Here's a quote from another article that referred to the source article: Because the iPhone, according to this Newsday story, checks for service updates and email whether it's turned on or off.