Roam wasn't built in a day

The Register's mobile phone expert spends a week offline in Crazy Horse. No change there then...

While GSM globally has passed the 100th million subscriber mark (actually it's now over 120 million), this fact hasn't quite sunk in with everyday Americans. While it should be entirely possible to 'roam' with your GSM phone in most US cities, the obstacles to doing so are often insurmountable. In a classic display of the 'not-invented here' syndrome, GSM technology has reached North America but in a different format. Instead of using 900MHz or 1800MHz as in Europe and most of the rest of the world, the US is using 1900MHz -- known as DCS 1900. There are a number of dual-band mobile handsets available which support 900MHz and 1900MHz, and Bosch's World 718 phone -- a good example of this -- is reputedly on sale in New York's shops for $600. It just seems to be impossible to buy one right now. Never mind, the standard advice from European GSM network operators -- such as Orange in the UK -- is to take your SIM card with you and hire a handset on arrival in the US. Unfortunately most US handset rental companies are still only geared up for analogue phones. Obstacle number One. Your SIM card might not fit. Most European phones now take the smaller SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards whereas Motorola DCS phones (popular in the US) still take the larger SIMs. The solution: a SIM card adapter into which you can pop the smaller SIM. Obstacle number Two. Remember to ensure your SIM is enabled for international roaming and that international call barring is not operational. Obstacle number Three (the real killer): the personal unlocking code (PUC). Most cellular network operators bar users from using a SIM card from a rival operator using the PUC. In order to use your 'foreign' SIM card you need to obtain this special number by reading out the handset's unique serial number to the handset's network operator. This will unlock the phone. But an operator like Nevada Bell simply refers you back to the reseller. Unfortunately, Will Call Communications -- which was renting cellular phones at Comdex -- doesn't offer unlocked handsets for rental. According to Debbie Martinez, president of Will Call, this is a problem which her company is aware of but as yet her company doesn't offer such a service. The catch is that mobile phone resellers make their profit from airtime -- not rental. In the UK, Vodafone is aware of this problem and can put travellers in touch with a suitable rental company. The snag is you have to remember to arrange this before you leave the country since the UK reseller only publishes a UK freefone (0800) number. Whoops. ®

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