The confusing future of cellular data caps

Just before Florida real estate swindler-cum-hotelier Groucho tries to explain viaduct/why a duck in the Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts, he asks his potential partner in crime-cum-idle roomer Chico if he knows what a "whole lot" — as in real estate lot — is.

Replies Chico, "Yeah, it's-a too much."

Uh oh.

"Any time you gotta too much, you gotta whole lot. Look, I explain it to you. Sometimes you no got enough, it's too much, you gotta whole lot. Sometimes you got a little bit. You no think it's enough, somebody else maybe think it's-a too much, it's-a whole lot too. Now, it's-a whole lot, it's-a too much, it's-a too much, it's-a whole lot — same thing."

Pretty funny, except that sounds exactly like the answers you'd get when you ask cell carriers about smart phone, USB modem, MiFi or international data plans and how much 5GB or 10GB is.

Well, it's a whole lot.

Last month I was in Spain for a week. Prior to my departure, I dutifully called AT&T Wireless to buy an international data roaming plan for a month (they don't sell data by the week; I didn't need a calling plan — I used Line2). They had plans of 50MB for $60 a month and 100MB for $120 a month.

How much stuff — email, Web pages, etc. — does 50MB or 100MB entail, I ask?

As you'd expect, I initially got a Chico-style answer because it's an impossible question to answer. Largely because of varying graphic content, emails are all different sizes, websites are all different sizes, all data uploads and downloads are different sizes. There really isn't an "average."

But after a few minutes of extreme generalities (i.e. a couple of hundred emails with no attachments downloaded, "normal" Web surfing) we figured the 50MB plan would be a whole lot for the week I was going to be wandering about the Iberian peninsula.

But as I found out, sometimes a whole lot isn't too much.

Wrong Again

Two days after I got to Spain and was using my phone for GPS mapping along with checking my email (answering only essential queries), and checking baseball scores, I got an urgent message from AT&T alerting me I'd gone over my 50MB. After two days. I called them up and, since I had another five days in country, I signed up for an additional 100MB — total cost, around $180 for a week of iPhone data usage in Spain.

Yikes.

It wasn't until I was confirming some facts for this piece that I got much better international data roaming advice from AT&T — a month too late. There's a Web page with all of AT&T's international rates, which is needlessly confusing (not a surprise).

But overall, he rhetorically asks, why is international data roaming so F#%$@&* expensive?! I'd understand if data roaming were twice as expensive. Okay, even 10 times as expensive. But you can get five GIGAbytes a month in the New World for the same price as 50 MEGAbytes in the Old World. If my math is right (and it probably isn't), that's hundred times more.

A hundred times more for data in Europe than in the U.S.? It's air for chrissakes!

The other major carriers have similarly price gougey international data roaming deals — Verizon's Spain rates are $30/monthly for 25MB and $100/month for 70MB; T-Mobile charges $15/MB (no monthly plan); Sprint doesn't seem to have any per-MB data roaming deal, just even more confusing per-KB charges.

The cynic in me thinks the world's carriers are all in cahoots about setting international data roaming prices. And somehow allowing two or the few remaining giant carriers to merge to further reduce price competition is a good idea.

Sigh.

What About USB Modem/MiFi?

Even once I reconciled the international pricing (which I haven't), I'm still left with my initial question: how much is a whole lot of data?

AT&T tries to help (and while I don't mean to pick on AT&T — I may as well be the guy turned upside down to empty my pockets in the "monthly mugging" T-Mobile commercial — I've earned the right to pick on them) with a data calculator to help you figure out how much data you use. There's also a page with really handy tips for international iPhone usage, advice I could have used if one of the three separate AT&T reps I spoke to before I left had pointed me to it.

I was told I could track my data usage (which understandably shrunk considerably for the remaining five days of my trip — but not being able to casually check for email during the day was like cigarette or coffee cravings and I felt like a junkie in rehab) on the iPhone: Settings-General-Usage, scroll down to the bottom of Usage to "Reset Statistics" when you arrive at your non-U.S. destination, and you'll get an precise running data odometer.

I tried to find an analogous data usage meter on Android, but couldn't. But you can download a data usage app from the Android Market, such as PhoneUsage from Jupiter Apps.

But what about a USB modem or a MiFi — I've been playing with 4G MiFis from Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. How does one, one, figure out which USB modem/MiFi monthly data plan to buy, and, two, how does one track usage while using a device without a screen or menus?

I guess you can start with AT&T's data calculator to see how much a whole lot of data really is. Usually, though, just figure that a whole lot is not enough, as I discovered. What's worse, with data caps becoming a very real thing here in the U.S., having to watch our data usage — and experiencing costly slip-ups — may not be unique to just the foreign experience.

For the latest tech stories, follow us on Twitter at @dvice