An Introduction to Mobile Phones for Travelers

An Introduction to Mobile Phones for Travelers

“Hello? Is there anybody out there?” Years after Pink Floyd asked this famous question, chances are the answer is yes. Especially if you’re talking – pardon the pun – about mobile phones. Wherever they can be afforded, and even where they can’t, mobile phones are tremendously popular. The idea was developed in the late 1940s, although the product (and the technology) didn’t materialize for 30 years.

Mobile Phone Options:

On a very basic level, mobile phones use either digital or analog systems. Many digital phones have analog capabilities, however, analog systems do not have digital capabilities. A majority of mobile phones that are sold today use digital technology, with the exception of small, local carriers.

There are a number of different brands of mobile phones that use various systems to run their network. Without getting too technical, systems are the reason the phone you use in New York won’t get a signal in London and the reason the phone you bought in Paris works just as well in Cape Town.

What is it? What does it do?: Analog versus Digital

Analog: Analog cellular phones work like a FM radio, with a system of receivers, transmitters and frequencies. Like FM radio, there are a limited number of frequencies that can be used. This system works best for local coverage in rural areas, where there is less chance that a particular frequency would be in use. A few of the more popular analog systems are TACS, AMPS and NMT.

  • TACS (Total Access Communications Service): European cellular monster Vodaphone started this system in 1985. Still used in a smattering of countries including Japan, Ireland, Tanzania and China.
  • AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System): A United States brainchild in the 1980s – more or less obsolete now, but it’s available in every country in the western hemisphere, as well as American Samoa, Angola, China, South Korea, Lebanon, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Solomon Islands, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Western Samoa.
  • NMT (Nordic Mobile Telephone): Guess where this one started? NMT is a rival to TACS and AMPS. Its also found in many parts of Europe and a number of countries in Asia. With advancements in technology, NMT is slowly being phased out in a number of countries.

Digital: Modern phones are more likely to use this technology, which, if you actually care, uses a binary code of 0s and 1s (like the Matrix!). Unfortunately, there are a number of overlapping digital networks in place, and most phones are only compatible with one system. The four largest systems are listed below.

  • GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications): While United States cell phone carriers were bickering among themselves and trying to one-up each other, European companies got together in 1982 and created the GSM system, which has since spread to Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim. It is the only system that allows for calls in both Europe and North America, and one of three that provides for such advances as e-mail, fax, internet and wireless access. GSM was only introduced in the United States in 1995. The largest GSM carriers in America are T-mobile and Cingular. GSM comes in different bands depending on the country. Save money on GSM phone rental.
  • TDMA IS-136 (Time Division Multiple Access): TDMA is also known as D-AMPS, if you actually care. The major US carrier is AT&T.
  • PDC (Personal Digital Cellular): Although only found in Japan, it’s more widely used than anything besides GSM and TDMA IS-136 (D-AMPS).
  • CDMA IS-95 (Code Division Multiple Access): CDMA technology has old roots – it’s a distant cousin of miliary communications from the second world war. The largest United States carrier on CDMA are Verizon and Sprint PCS.
  • iDEN (Integrated Dispatch Enhanced Network): Motorola produces the phones for this system, which combines TDMA technology with that of hand-held radios. Nextel is the largest provider.

What is it? What does it do?: Phone Options

  • Satellite: A satellite phone is the Grandfather of mobile phones. These large and clunky things (compared with today’s pocket-sized options) weigh about a pound and are capable of picking up a signal almost anywhere in the world, including the North and South Pole, the oceans and a number of remote areas. However, satellite phones are very expensive investments and mostly used by those on trekking or sailing expeditions.
  • World: A world phone is a fancy description for a phone that is compatible with two or three bands of GSM. Make sure to buy an UNLOCKED world phone if you will be traveling through more than one country. An unlocked cell phone means you can change carriers and SIM cards, depending on the country you are in (more on SIM cards below). If you buy a locked phone, you will be unable to get a local number while you are traveling, and can be charged exorbitant roaming rates.
  • Hybrid: A hybrid phone is just that – a phone that operates on two incompatible systems, such as iDEN and GSM.
  • Country-specific/standard: If you are studying abroad for an extended period of time, or plan on sticking on one country for awhile, consider buying a standard mobile phone in that country. Watch out for contracts that extend pass your trip-time, however!

What is it? What does it do?: SIM cards and pre-pay options

GSM phones require the use of a SIM card – a small chip that is placed in the back of the phone that establishes your service provider and your cell phone number. Your phone will not work without it! You can buy SIM cards at any phone shop and if you have an unlocked phone, you can change your SIM card whenever you go to another country that offers the service (more than 170 around the world). This usually requires a minimum purchase of $20 or $30 worth of credit. A HopAbroad SIM card is available, and may be desirable for those traveling through a number of countries in a short period of time. Rates are higher for HopAbroad than country-specific SIM cards.

Many GSM phones are pre-paid. You can buy a specific dollar amount worth of credit, usually in increments of 5 or 10 dollars, at phone shops, convenience stores and tobacco shops. To top up your credit, dial the number given on the back of the card and enter in a credit number. Voilá, you have credit! Honest. It works. Unfortunately, pre-paid cards (and lack of GSM coverage) are not yet popular options in North America and can be a hassle.

Why You Should Bring a Mobile Phone

  • Emergency use: Mobile phones are very common in the western world and one reason most parents justify buying their 13-year-old a phone is for safety. If you need to call a cab, or get lost, or simply need to dial an emergency number, a mobile phone can come in handy.
  • Closer contact with family and friends: Lets face it. Sometimes, you just don’t want to track down a pay phone, let alone figure out how to work it. With a mobile phone, it is a lot easier to say in touch with your family and friends. This way, your friends can drunk-dial you in the middle of your day, and your mom can call whenever she wants (this can be good or bad). Plus, it’s a lot easier to arrange meeting up with people when you have a phone. An extra bonus? If you’re in a ‘home area’, incoming calls might be free.
  • Organizational Tool: The cool thing about mobile phones is that they aren’t just phones any more. They’re alarms, schedulers and notebooks all in one. You can create short memos, calculate a tip and play simple computer games. Forget your phone? No problem, chances are, you’re camera is able to take a shot for you. Mobile phones can be a great resource for more than just calls.

Why You Should Not Bring a Mobile Phone

  • Snooze, you lose: Phones disappear, like, all the freaking time. You leave them in the back of a taxi, you forget on top of the table at the restaurant, it falls out of your pocket when you’re being party hardy….you get the idea. Phones have legs. I’m convinced. Now, whether those ‘legs’ are the result of simply forgetting or losing your phone versus a wandering hand, I don’t know, but phones are small, and that’s not always a good thing.
  • “Plugged In” feeling: If you have a cell phone, it’s a lot harder to get away. Sure, there isn’t service in the remote jungles of India, but there’s plenty of it in Europe or North America. Mobile phones are easy to get attached to and even easier to become dependent on.
  • Fragile: The slippery little suckers always seem to be falling: off the bar, out of a purse, through someone’s hand, etc. Although some can take the beating, many can’t, especially when the fall is into water or an adult beverage.
  • Price!: Boy, mobile phones are expensive, and we’re not even talking about the phone itself! Roaming rates, new batteries, SIM cards, top-up points – they’ll all get you right in your pocketbook. Text messages, incoming calls and outgoing calls add up, especially if you’re not careful or you get confused on the price schedule.
  • Hassle: Charging batteries, figuring out roaming rates, dealing with converters, worrying about it getting lost…are you sure a mobile phone is worth the effort?

So, Boots crew, do I take it?

Hmm…this is a hard one. If you like to have a phone around, and it’s important for others to be able to reach you, bring it. If you like to be ‘unplugged’, ditch it. If you’re going for a long trip, buying one is recommended, although they are available for rent.

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