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Cell phone user gets wrong signal


Spokane financial planner Dave Baker received a surprise after returning from a recent, three-week trip to Germany — a $4,730 phone bill.

Most of the charges in the 32-page Cingular Wireless invoice stem from Baker’s use of a cellular laptop card for business while traveling. Baker said he struggled to get the card to work and had to download files repeatedly, hindering his business. When he returned, his bill showed he used hundreds of thousands of kilobytes of data transfer service at about 2 cents each while roaming overseas.

Baker, who returned from his trip in January, said he spent hours on the phone with Cingular representatives protesting the bill. Though company employees offered a credit, he said, nothing materialized. His latest bill shows a balance of $7,124.

“Right now, I have 10 hours plus on this deal, and I’m not very happy,” he said.

Confusion about where Baker would use the service caused him to get a domestic plan, said Cingular spokeswoman Lauren Garner. His account will be credited $6,080 for the international roaming charges later this week, she said.

“We do work with our customers when they have an unusually high bill,” she said. “Clearly, this is something new he discovered on his bill.”

Garner said some customers with proper credit and history with the company can use their cellular devices internationally without taking steps to activate them. Customers who plan to work abroad should check with the company, which offers 100 megabytes of data transfer for $140 a month.

Business travelers have a variety of options to stay connected to the Internet while abroad, but as Baker’s experience shows, some methods can be pricey.

Baker planned to use a cellular laptop card — a device that allows users to check e-mail and surf the Web remotely through cell phone signals — to keep up on business. He also wanted to use a USB device by Vonage, a company that allows customers to make international phone calls from some places in Germany over the Internet using Voice over Internet Protocol for 5 cents a minute.

Baker said he expressly told Cingular employees he would be going to Germany. A company representative offered him a one-year contract for a set monthly fee or a pay-as-you-go plan, recommending the latter, he said. Although his setup worked fine in this country, neither the Internet nor Vonage phone calls worked properly in Frankfurt, he said. He resorted to using his regular cell phone to call the U.S. — a more expensive method.

When he contacted Cingular, Baker said he was told he didn’t have the latest type of cellular coverage in that area. Cingular contracts with cellular providers overseas.

“It’s one thing to take care of a customer in a prompt manner, but it’s totally something else to take care of a customer four or five months after they’ve been totally frustrated and expect them to be satisfied,” he said.

Garner said the company did work with Baker, entering a credit on his account March 31. He was told it would be processed today, she said.

Several phone companies provide cellular laptop options for international travelers. Starting this month, Verizon Wireless offers a two-card system that allows 100 megabytes a month in “tier-one” countries, such France and Belgium. It costs .03 cents a kilobyte for “tier-two” countries, such as those in Asia and the Middle East.

Sprint offers several mobile broadband cards. For $99 a month, people can use unlimited data throughout North America. But for customers overseas, it will cost 16 cents per kilobyte to use a special phone as a cellular modem. For travelers on smaller budgets or who don’t need access wherever they go, many hotels and airports overseas now offer traditional wireless Internet access.

“It’s just more and more accessible everywhere I go,” said Doug Staker, vice president and general manager of international business for Liberty Lake-based Itron. “It’s in places I don’t always expect.”

Itron uses iPass, a service that offers connection to wireless and other Internet access points around the world, and Staker personally uses T-Mobile wireless hotspots around the globe, he said.

Baker said he doesn’t intend to switch cellular providers.

“I haven’t found much difference in any of these companies,” he said. “I think we’re sort of stuck,” because people have invested money in phones and have publicized their numbers on cards and Web sites.

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