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Road Work: A weekly look at business travel

Roam free on your cell - or at least on the cheap Add to ...

Ask any Canadian who travels the world on business and he'll tell you he has issues with his wireless plan. Both in terms of technology and pricing, Canada has been lagging behind both Europe and the United States for years. But two recent developments offer some hope: It may now be possible to take your phone and laptop on the road and not run up phone bills that dwarf your mortgage payments. The introduction of a new roaming phone, and new Wi-Fi pricing from one of the country's biggest wireless carriers, suggest the arrival at last of affordable service for foreign trips.

Tuesday, Rogers announced new North American One Rate Data plans for data devices including its Rocket Stick, letting customers avoid roaming charges. The stick is a small wireless device that plugs into your laptop's USB port and picks up cell signals to make everywhere you go a hot spot. It has been expensive even in Canada, but until this month, it was even more costly on the road: With roaming charges, data in the U.S. cost $3 to $6 a megabyte. But now, Rogers has decided to lead Canadian wireless companies by eliminating roaming charges. With a one-year contract (the minimum Rogers offers), you get the stick for $49.99 and a flex plan for $45 a month that gives you up to 500 megabytes a month. If you use more, you automatically get bumped up to a $60 plan with one gigabyte a month. (The stick is free with a three-year commitment.)

But with free Wi-Fi proliferating throughout the Western world, does the convenience and performance warrant even the $60 charge? In Miami Beach this week, I first tried my usual hunt for free Wi-Fi. As is often the case, it took me a while to find the nearest Starbucks with a connection (some of the chain's locations have free Wi-Fi for customers with a rewards card). In a different part of town, I had to stop a couple of times to try to detect a signal, finding one after about half an hour at a French café that was just closing, at which I had to buy a palmier ($2.95) as rent for the table for the 10 minutes it took the staff to close the place around me.

Once I inserted the stick, though, everything changed. The obvious benefit of the stick is convenience: Anywhere you lay your laptop, that's your office. On a lovely mid-February day, I was able to sit by a fountain and check my e-mail.

But the action seemed a little sluggish, so I stopped in at another café, which has its own free Wi-Fi, to test the speeds. Using both speedtest.net and speakeasy.net, sites that test the upload and download speed of your connection, during the course of about 90 minutes, I learned the stick can be as much as four times slower for downloading than free Wi-Fi. If you're checking e-mail with no attachments, it won't make much difference. But anything heftier, and you may start to get antsy and cast about for the nearest Starbucks.

So is it worth it? It depends on the work you do. Speed versus convenience. Unfortunately, you still can't have it all. Though data transfer is an issue, for most of us, voice calls are the real killer. You can get packages from the big carriers that cut down on extortionate roaming fees, but you pay for the privilege. A small Vancouver company, Roam Mobility, is the first company in Canada that offers global SIM cards, which allow low roaming charges (20 to 40 cents a minute) and free incoming calls almost anywhere in the world.

"It's fantastic," says Rushi Raja, who travels for his Montreal textile importing company and has been using Roam for two months. He used to get different SIM cards for his most popular destinations, including Germany and Britain, but they expired after a couple of months, and he had to update his contacts with new phone numbers. With Roam, which is pay-as-you-go with online and text top-ups, Raja now has just two numbers, one a British number, the other a U.S. number, neither of which expires. His roaming charges, which were made up almost entirely of his office calling him on the road, have gone from between $400 and $500 a month to almost nothing, he says.

Though Raja reports no problems using the service, my own test in the southern U.S. threw up several. For instance, you can't call toll-free numbers (which made tracking a late UPS package very difficult). To get free incoming calls, people have to call you on a British number and pay the long-distance rates. (You also get a U.S. number, but incoming calls cost 20 cents on that one.) About 10 per cent of my calls simply never went through. Most annoyingly, if you're silent for more than about 20 seconds (on hold, for example), you'll get a message telling you to press 1 to maintain the connection. If you press 1 before the end of the message, however, it'll disconnect you. Twice, it disconnected me even when I pressed 1 after the message.

Roam chief executive officer Emir Aboulhosn says it is working on most of these issues, including adding a Canadian number to the phone. But for many corporate travellers, cost is the real issue, and here Roam is already doing well. Five days of travel with an ordinary volume of calls (something I would never have considered with regular roaming charges), including several hour-long calls in and out, ended up costing me about $14. There were some annoyances, a good deal of frustration with dropped calls and other irregularities, but things ultimately worked out, and for these prices, it's hard to complain.

Once again, you can't quite have it all, but at least now you can have it cheap.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Do you have feedback or business travel questions? E-mail roadwork@globeandmail.com.

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Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that Rogers had introduced travel packs for its Rocket Stick. This online version has been corrected.

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