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Roam, roam on the range?
August 28, 2012 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me understand how cellphone roaming works in 2012?

My wife and I share a T-Mobile family plan with my parents. We all have old Motorola V190 and similar flip phones - in other words not smart phones, no data .

We all live in the Minneapolis/St.Paul metro area and the plan works pretty well for us there...BUT. We also have a rural property in west central Wisconsin and there I must drive ten miles into the closest town to get reception. This is not only inconvenient but a safety issue: I am alone at this property working with farm machinery and construction and need cell functionality in case of an emergency.

When I dig into the phone's menus and play with network settings, the phone "sees" a Cingular network (this is what our rural neighbors use) but it will not connect to it. The display says "Emergency Only" which alternates randomly with "no service." If I go to T-Mobiles coverage map, it shows we're in a no coverage area.

Here's what I don't get: when I first started using cell phones in the mid nineties, if I was outside my network's coverage areas, the phone would roam and I could make calls, albeit at a steep rate. Our family plan with T-Mobile specifies "free digital roaming." So I'm wondering why I can't roam with this phone on the local Cingular network.

BTW I have tried several different phones with my SIM card, and none work.

I know the no-brainer answer is to call up T-Mobile and ask this question, but my dad holds the account and trying to resolve this through him would be excrutiating...it's a long story.
posted by werkzeuger to Technology (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Long story short: it's probable that AT&T (Cingular) and T-Mob don't have a roaming agreement in your area. It's less possible that the "Cingular" Network in your area is the common 3G frequency that AT&T uses and T-Mobile doesn't.
posted by Oktober at 2:22 PM on August 28, 2012


"Digital" is part of the answer-- you have analog phones. It's possible that with a newer phone (and SIM-- which identifies your account and marries any phone to analog service) you could have service there after all.

Get someone else with a T-Mob phone to try that in your rural property.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:23 PM on August 28, 2012


Roaming is usually defined as within the cellular carrier's network. So your T-Mobile has free roaming throughout the T-Mobile network. If you try to connect through another network, like Cingular (that's a blast from the past, it's AT&T now) T-Mobile has to pay AT&T, and then you have to pay T-Mobile, and they don't want the hassle...so no go.

If you get a phone with a larger network map, like AT&T or Verizon, you roam all over the place, and never notice that there are any gaps, that's how comprehensive the network is and/or, they have agreements in place to cover you in areas where they don't have coverage.

T-Mobile and Metro PCS are usually specific to large, urban areas, and confine the use to the network. That's why they're cheap.

I say get a burner for emergencies. Get an AT&T Go phone or such like.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:24 PM on August 28, 2012


@Ruthless Bunny - I have never heard of roaming defined in the manner you mentioned. As far as I've seen, "roaming" always means "using your phone on another company's network".
posted by Vorteks at 2:26 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Roaming" is, I believe, not much used in these days of carriers with nationwide service. I would consider a separate prepaid phone on the AT&T network for use in Wisconsin.
posted by yclipse at 2:31 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Roaming is usually defined as within the cellular carrier's network.

Sometimes, but not always. I've had a cellular phone forever and back in the day it could mean roaming outside of your local area.

My phone would be okay for San Jose, but moving outside the LATA (Local Access Transport Area) to San Francisco, required "Roaming" and a higher rate, even though I was using the same carrier.

My telecommunications specialty is primarily in data, not cellular, but my personal experience has been that the network-to-network roaming is a completely different animal than using the same network in a different geographical area.

T-Mobile may have "free digital roaming" which means that as long as there was a digital T-Mobile network around, the roaming is free. They may not have agreements with other carriers to transport the traffic.

Aaaannnnd, what yclipse said.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:32 PM on August 28, 2012


"cingular" is what the available networks menu option displays, despite the merger. I hadn't considered an AT&T burner, that's an intriguing idea.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:32 PM on August 28, 2012


Yeah, AT&T never bothered to remove the Cingular name from its towers, APNs, etc. Until I switched to sprint two years ago, I had a Cingular SIM card in my ATT phone.

Check the roaming settings on your phone; it could be explicitly off. The other thing is that you may just be on the edge of the ATT network, and your GSM phone can't even begin to connect to Verizon or Sprint, which are CDMA networks. (The technical relation between CDMA and GSM is not black and white, but as far as phone interoperability, it might as well be.)

So an AT&T "Go! Phone," which is their burner brand would be an option, and some experimenting with borrowed phones might reveal Sprint/VZW options as well-- it sounds like Cingular is borderline at your location.

Another option is a cellphone amplifier at the property, which would amp the signal of your Go! phone and potentially make your T-Mob phone work....but probably not, since I still think you are using an analog account. Anyway, good luck, and try not to get trapped under anything while alone in Wisconsin.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:36 PM on August 28, 2012


Sunburnt: Analog cellular was shut down in the USA four years ago. T-mobile never had analog cellular in the first place.
posted by adamrice at 2:37 PM on August 28, 2012


Assuming for the moment I'll get a prepaid AT&T phone, will it roam (within network)? In other words do I need to purchase it in Wisconsin or somehow get it assigned a WI area code?
posted by werkzeuger at 3:06 PM on August 28, 2012


Hey, I do this with the burner phone for rural places - I have Virgin Mobile which works fine for me in Massachusetts but it doesn't work well at my family's lake house in Maine so I have an AT&T prepaid phone that I use (well, leave turned off, mostly) when I'm there or other rural places with no VMobile. I bought it in Massachusetts and it has worked just fine in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
posted by mskyle at 3:12 PM on August 28, 2012


If the property in Wisconsin has internet access and an available WiFi network, you could get a T-Mobile handset that supports WiFi Calling which allows the phone to freely "roam" on any available internet connection.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:18 PM on August 28, 2012


The property doesn't even have electricity. It's _really_ rural. I need as lo-tech a solution as possible.

Thanks for all this info, everyone. Sounds like a burner is in my future.
posted by werkzeuger at 4:01 PM on August 28, 2012


Assuming for the moment I'll get a prepaid AT&T phone, will it roam (within network)? In other words do I need to purchase it in Wisconsin or somehow get it assigned a WI area code?

I've never heard of cell phones being tied to anything other than cell companies. In other words, if AT&T is indeed covering your rural property, you can buy an AT&T phone any where and use it on your farm.

I've heard that some small companies lease access from larger companies, and in some cases combine companies for more inclusive access. My parents-in-law got inexpensive cell phones through AARP, and this was supposedly the case. I'm not sure what to look for to verify this.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:06 PM on August 28, 2012


If you try to connect through another network, like Cingular (that's a blast from the past, it's AT&T now) T-Mobile has to pay AT&T, and then you have to pay T-Mobile, and they don't want the hassle...so no go.

Coincidentally, this is not the case on T-Mobile's 'nationwide' plans--T-Mobile has to pay AT&T, but you don't pay T-Mobile extra. My mother is pretty much permanently roaming--there is no T-Mobile tower where she lives, you get the AT&T tower. I'm sure T-Mobile is not thrilled with this, but as far as I know, it's something they knew could happen.

My guess was going to be that you can't connect because your phone can't handle that frequency, but I don't think that makes sense given that you can see the Cingular network.
posted by hoyland at 4:21 PM on August 28, 2012


Additional info from this T-Mobile support thread: sometimes you can connect to AT&T, sometimes you can't, because of the historic agreements with the previous local providers.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:24 PM on August 28, 2012


filthy light thief thanks for that link, it explains why several years ago my family did have coverage at the Wisconsin location and now it has gone away.
posted by werkzeuger at 4:57 PM on August 28, 2012


"Digital" is part of the answer-- you have analog phones. It's possible that with a newer phone (and SIM-- which identifies your account and marries any phone to analog service) you could have service there after all.

If a phone has a SIM card, it isn't analog.
posted by atrazine at 5:36 PM on August 28, 2012


If you're going to get a prepaid phone, I suggest going with Tracfone. They have pretty good deals on decent (not fancy) phones, you can get phones that have features like "lifetime double minutes" (meaning you buy 100 minutes, you get 200 credited to your account), and the thing is: Tracfone uses any tower it can reach, and you never pay roaming charges on anything.

The only drawback I can see to something like Tracfone is that they require that you keep putting minutes on your phone within certain time limits or else your phone and the number associated with it expires, even if you have minutes still unused.

You can buy cards which let you add a year of life to your phone which sounds great, but they're not cheap. Most minutes cards add 3 months of service to your phone, which should be plenty if you just remember to get the minutes every 89 days.

Don't get a prepaid phone which is tied to a specific network. There are probably other brands which do the Tracfone thing and use any tower available. I went with Tracfone because it had the best (not fancy) phone for the best price and had double minutes and it was all pretty reasonable. Some research may be in order, but that would be my suggestion if you're going prepaid.
posted by hippybear at 6:45 PM on August 28, 2012


Oh, also! You could just swap out the SIM card, you don't actually need a whole new phone. T-Mobile will unlock your phone if you ask. On the other hand, it may just be easier to buy a separate phone.
posted by mskyle at 5:34 AM on August 29, 2012


Oh, also! You could just swap out the SIM card, you don't actually need a whole new phone. T-Mobile will unlock your phone if you ask.

Yep! I've got a AT&T SIM on order and our phones are already unlocked. I only need this phone a couple days per month at most, so it should be a low-cost solution. (Although it sucks that ATT minutes expire so easily).

Thanks again to everyone.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:19 AM on August 29, 2012


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