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The days of global roaming could be numbered, with the launch of a new single mobile network that spans multiple countries.
The company behind the network, Tru, is operating a mobile network in the US using its own radio spectrum, and then extending that network out to the UK and Australia with virtual mobile network agreements with Vodafone UK and Optus.
The revolutionary thing about Tru's SIM card -- available in Australia from today -- is that it's the first time that one SIM card has allowed "local customer" access in several different countries. When you travel between Australia, the US and the UK, your phone will not go into global roaming mode -- it will be logged in to the Tru network in each country as a local customer.
If you're not familiar with how virtual mobile networks work, think about Virgin Mobile in Australia. Virgin doesn't have to build its own towers, or even rig up antennae on existing towers -- it rents access to Optus' GSM mobile network. Optus provides the radio link between the tower and your phone, but Virgin Mobile provides the services behind the tower (voicemail services, customer service, billing, etc.) Like Virgin Mobile, Tru provides everything behind the tower, too.
Keep that data flowing while travelling
Tru's voice calling rates are low, but we'll get to that in a minute. The real highlight is the pricing for internet access via a Tru SIM. This has long been the bane of travellers; modern smartphones slurp down data for their email clients, fast web browsers and numerous apps -- but there has, until now, been no cheap way to stay connected to the net all the time when travelling overseas.
Most people either resort to paying hundreds of dollars to their telco in data roaming fees, or restrict their internet usage to times when they can log in to a WiFi hotspot and pay a flat fee for a period of access.
Special "Travel SIM" type cards are even worse in this respect -- while they give good discounts on voice calls, they are often worse for data pricing, charging rates of up to $50/MB (yes, your mental maths is correct; that's $50,000 per GB -- the same amount of data you get on a Telstra mobile plan in Australia for $49.)
The Tru rates are amazingly low for anyone used to global roaming. For example, using data on your smartphone or in a 3G modem is only 15c/MB in the UK, or 35c/MB in the US -- that's a tiny, tiny fraction of the $10.00-$20.00/MB you'll pay with Telstra, Optus, Vodafone or 3's global roaming.
Tru has even lower rates for business customers who are prepared to commit to a 12 month plan (8c/MB in Australia, 15c/MB in the USA, though the UK rate is surprisingly slightly more expensive -- 20c/MB).
Even if you were to think ahead and buy one of your Aussie telco's global roaming packs in advance, the rate only comes down to about $2.00-$3.00/MB -- still about 10 times what you'd pay with a Tru SIM.
The $0.15/MB rate in the UK translates out to $15 per 100MB, or $150 per GB -- rates that make using 3G when overseas a no-brainer compared to daily hotel internet rates, or WiFi hotspot prices. Of course, it's cheaper again to use a prepaid UK SIM card -- for example the Tesco Mobile one we reviewed recently -- while in the UK.
The US rate expands out to $35 per 100MB or $350 per GB, so, clearly, it's still not quite 'local' rates in the US, but for modest use in the range of a few hundred MB, it's still reasonably priced. One good alternative to Tru in the US is SIMple Mobile.
Calling home or abroad doesn't matter
Voice rates are also amazingly good. Calling from the UK to Australia costs 12c a minute (or 30c/min to mobiles), and there is none of the call-back rigamarole that you have to put up with with discount global roaming SIMs like TravelSIM. You just place the call as normal, as you would in Australia.
Calling Australia from the US costs 17c/min or 38c/min to Australian mobiles.
Tru provides a regular sized SIM card as well as the smaller 3FF Micro-SIM size needed for iPhone 4 and iPad (on request), too. Tru has worked with Apple to make sure that iOS devices pull down the right carrier settings for the Tru network when activated.
BlackBerry users won't have to pay roaming fees
Another unique feature of the Tru SIM is the ability to use it in a BlackBerry -- a huge bonus for business travelers, who are more likely than any other type of traveller to be avid users of their corporate BlackBerry.
No discount global roaming SIM has offered this service to date, as the BlackBerry service is connected via your home telco, and as soon as you swap your SIM's phone over, the BlackBerry service disconnects, stopping emails and internet access altogether.
Tru can provision a BlackBerry add-on plan for you on your Tru SIM, which you can set up identically to your normal SIM's BlackBerry service.
It costs an additional monthly fee -- and currently is only available on SIM cards purchased through Tru UK.
Good enough to be your only SIM?
The Australian Country Director for Tru, Ben Pullen, says the card is designed to be the only SIM card regular travellers to the US, the UK and Australia need use.
Tru is offering a number of 12 month contract business plans that include a bundle of minutes and data that can be used in Australia, the US or the UK without worrying about costs.
For example, a $65 plan provides 450 calling minutes, 250 SMS messages and 40MB of data for use in the three Tru countries.
Other plans are:
$105: 800 calling minutes, 400 SMS, 75MB data
$160: 1500 calling minutes, 750 SMS, 500MB data
Add-ons available for these plans are:
$10: 500MB additional data for use in Australia only
$100: 500MB additional data for use in any Tru country
So, for example, for $205 you could have a plan that offered 800 calling minutes, 400 SMS and 575MB data -- which should be enough for a one to two week trip across the UK or the US.
A mobile number in each country
A clever feature of the Tru SIM service is that if you call someone in the USA, they see a US mobile number as the calling line identifier. They can then call you back on your mobile at rates local to them, and at no additional charge to you too.
Likewise, if you call someone in the UK, they see a UK number calling, and if you call an Australia number, they see an Optus mobile number calling.
All three numbers link back to your phone.
The additional numbers are only provided free of charge to business subscribers who take a two year contract with Tru. For people who just buy the pre-paid SIM card, the additional numbers can be rented for an $8 per number monthly fee.
It roams, too.
Although Tru's network is only in Australia, the US and the UK so far, the Tru SIM can be used to roam to other countries too, with rates not dissimilar to other "Travel SIM" type cards. You can check the rates for other countries here.
Tru is currently setting up virtual mobile networks in Hong Kong, Spain and the Netherlands, and intends to add 24 more countries by the end of 2012.
What the SIM costs
Tru has done a clever deal with Qantas Inflight Shopping to offer the SIM on flights to the UK and USA. You can buy the SIM on the plane or at any time from the Qantas Inflight Shopping website for $20.00. The SIM sold through Qantas inflight shopping will be a standard size SIM only, so it won't be compatible with iPhone 4s or iPads, as they use the smaller size Micro SIM. (Standard size SIMs can be cut down to micro SIM size if you spend a few dollars on a SIM cutter, though.)
Buying the SIM from the Tru website directly costs $29.99. You can choose either a standard size SIM or a 3FF Micro SIM for iPhone 4 & iPad.
The SIM -- whether you buy it through Qantas or Tru directly -- comes with $15 credit to spend on calls or data in the first month.
Using Tru SIM with a laptop modem
If you don't already have one, Tru is offering an unlocked USB 3G modem for laptops for $79. It's an Option iCon 452, and works on both Windows and Mac.
It's a handy little modem with a 7.2Mbit/s maximum download speed and a retractable USB connector for less pokey storage in a pocket.
The amazing thing about this modem is that it supports both the 850MHz frequency needed for AT&T in the USA as well as the 1700MHz frequency needed for T-Mobile 3G in the USA. As a result, if you're travelling there, you'll be able to roam onto both AT&T and T-Mobile via the Tru SIM.
On the other hand, it's not the best modem for use on the Tru Australia network, which excusively uses Optus. While it supports the 2100MHz radio frequency used for Optus' city network, it does not support the 900MHz band needed for Optus' expanded coverage regional network.
(As an aside, it does support Telstra's 850MHz network so you could use it with a Next G SIM card while in Australia, but then, you may as well use a Telstra-issued and supported modem.)