Why Verizon 4G LTE smartphones are a bad choice for world travelers

None of Verizon's new 4G LTE smartphones offers global roaming. Ask Maggie explains why.

Verizon's latest line-up of 4G LTE smartphones is impressive, but there's one feature these cutting edge smartphones lack: global roaming.

For years, Verizon Wireless customers were unable to use their cell phones while traveling in many parts of the world, because Verizon's technology was incompatible with most of the world's wireless carriers. Then the company started offering a handful of "world phones," which finally allowed Verizon subscribers to roam onto most carrier networks overseas. But now as the carrier pushes its new and existing customers to sign up for 4G LTE service, Verizon is once again handicapping its customers with no option for global roaming.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain why Verizon phones can't roam in the first place. And I try to offer an explanation for why Verizon hasn't offered an alternative. I also explain how a Kindle Fire tablet can access a3G wireless networks.

Why can't I roam with my 4G LTE smartphone?

Dear Maggie,
Do you have any idea why none of Verizon's 4G LTE Android phones are "global capable?"

Thanks,
Frank

Dear Frank,
You are correct. Verizon sells several new 4G LTE Android smartphones and none of them can be used overseas. Like you, I find this fact rather frustrating, since more than ever people are traveling and working abroad. In many ways, it seems like Verizon is taking a step back in time. For years, the company offered no devices that could roam in many parts of the world.

Verizon begins touting the 4G LTE Rezound prior to an official announcement. Droid Life

The reason is that Verizon uses a different network technology than most wireless carriers around the world for its 2G and 3G service. Verizon supports CDMA, while the rest of the world, such as Europe, parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, use GSM. AT&T and T-Mobile USA operate GSM networks, which is why those customers have always been able to roam outside the U.S.

Obviously, this has been a huge pain for Verizon customers, especially those who travel overseas often. So to offer its customers a better option, Verizon has sold "world phones," which include the CDMA and GSM technologies. So when a subscriber is in the U.S., he uses the the CDMA network. When he travels to Europe, he can roam onto a GSM network or pop the SIM card out of an unlocked device and put in a local SIM card. And because there are parts of the world that also support CDMA, such as Central and South America, Verizon "world phone" users can also roam there.

The iPhone 4S is an example of such a device. (Unfortunately, the iPhone 4 does not have the GSM roaming capability turned on.)

When Verizon first said it was going to launch its 4G LTE network, I thought that the roaming issue would finally go away for its customers. Why? Unlike with its 2G and 3G networks, Verizon had decided to adopt a network technology that the rest of the world also planned to use. Almost every major wireless operator in the world is planning to deploy a 4G LTE network. Even Sprint Nextel, which build a a 4G network using a technology called WiMax is moving toward LTE.

So what's the problem? Why can't Verizon's 4G LTE devices roam internationally? First, there are few LTE networks built outside the U.S. But the main reason is that Verizon's LTE network and devices are not compatible with any other wireless carrier's network because the spectrum frequency and the specifications developed for its sliver of wireless spectrum is different from any other carrier in the world.

When 2G and 3G were first deployed, most countries adopted similar spectrum bands for the service. But today with spectrum in short supply, the airwaves carriers are using to build their networks are all over the map. Even carriers using the same frequency band may not have compatibility for roaming. For example, AT&T and Verizon are each using 700 MHz to build their LTE networks. But they use different slivers of this frequency, and because the "bands" aren't harmonized, the specifications are different and devices built for AT&T won't work on Verizon's network and vice versa. This is why a new 4G LTE-enabled iPad on Verizon's network can't operate on AT&T's network.

That said, Verizon could include GSM technology in its 4G LTE devices so that its subscribers could roam onto 3G HSPA networks overseas. So why aren't they doing that?

Verizon hasn't officially offered much explanation. I asked a spokeswoman why and she ignored the question and simply verified that the company is not yet offering 4G LTE "world phones."

My guess is that supporting the additional GSM radios increases the cost of the device. Also fitting additional radio technology into these devices also might raise some design issues for smartphone manufacturers.

You have to remember that LTE is still a relatively new technology. Because Verizon's 4G LTE network isn't deployed everywhere, the new 4G LTE phones must also support 3G EV-DO technology as well as the basic 2G technology for when users roam to remote areas where 3G isn't available. Adding "world" support means that even more radios need to be installed in the device.

What's more, consumers want thinner phones, and they want long-lasting batteries. Outfitting devices with more radio technology affects the design of the devices. So it may be more difficult to deliver a thin device, or it could affect battery life. But as designs improve and costs come down, Verizon will likely add 3G "world phone" support to its 4G LTE devices.

That said, as I've explained, Verizon is unlikely to offer world phones that support other 4G LTE networks. This shouldn't matter too much over the next couple of years anyway, since many wireless carriers overseas are still in the planning stages of their 4G LTE networks. But it would be nice to get some 3G roaming on Verizon's latest cutting edge smartphones, especially since the carrier is really pushing subscribers to upgrade to 4G devices. For now, I'll keep my fingers crossed.

3G for my Kindle Fire?

Dear Maggie,
How do I access 3G data on my Kindle Fire?

Thanks,
James

Dear James,
I'm sorry to break the bad news to you, but your Kindle Fire only supports Wi-Fi. There is no option to connect to a 3G wireless network via your device since it lacks a cellular radio. This is different from some of the other Kindle e-readers on the market. Some of these devices come with a cellular radio built in and access to the carrier network for very basic Web browsing and buying books and other reading material is free to the user. The cost of the service is bundled into the price of the device.

But that's not the case with the Kindle Fire. That said, you can connect your Kindle Fire o a 3G cellular data network via a MiFi device or a hotspot-enabled smartphone or tablet Every major wireless operator, along with many of the regional carriers and even prepaid operators offer these devices that create a personal hotspot that lets you connect Wi-Fi devices to the Internet via a 3G wireless data network.

Some smartphones and tablets also offer this "hotspot" feature. (For example, the new iPad with 4G LTE connectivity can turn into a Wi-Fi hotspot. But currently in the U.S. AT&T's version of the device doesn't have the hotspot feature turned on.)

But before you turn on your smartphone's hotspot feature or you run out and buy a MiFi, you should realize that many carriers charge extra for the hotspot functionality on smartphones and tablets. And if you're getting a MiFi device, some carriers require you to sign a contract in addition to the fact that you have to buy the actual MiFi device. And the data usage for that MiFi device or smartphone hotspot will be capped. This means that if you exceed your monthly usage, you'll likely be charged or your service will be slowed down, depending on which carrier you're using.

So the least expensive method of getting Internet access on your Kindle Fire is your home Wi-Fi connection or some other free Wi-Fi option that you might have. I hope this helps clear up any confusion you might have.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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