Phones That Can Roam The Planet

We leave a warm hotel lobby in Paris and brave a stiff winter wind, walking in search of a big piece of sky. After three blocks, we come to the Porte Maillot, a vast, noisy traffic circle. With few looming buildings, it's a good place to extend the thick antenna of an Iridium satellite phone, point it toward the heavens, and press a button to call the French cell phone in my pocket. Right away, the French phone beeps, and the call goes through.

Some 67 million Americans have followed the siren call of wireless phones. As they become addicted, a growing number will want to pack a phone when leaving the U.S. Differing technologies and wavelengths have made continent-hopping rough for Americans. But if you're able to pay the stiff price, your mobile phone can go global. The top choices are a satellite phone and a traditional handset that operates on multiple bands.

The satellite phone rules supreme for the price-is-no-object crowd. Iridium (, a venture led by Motorola, spent billions circling the earth with 66 satellites. With a bulky $3,000 Motorola-built Iridium handset, you can reach the rest of the world from virtually anywhere. Iridium isn't as smooth as a regular cell phone. Your voice takes about a half-second to travel up to the satellite and back. It requires a clear view of the satellite, meaning you have to go outside to call as I did in Paris. And satellite calls cost as much as several dollars per minute. The handset also weighs about a pound, making it too hefty for users accustomed to shirt-pocket-size units.

The big advantage is that in certain parts of the world, only a satellite phone works, and Iridium is by far the lightest and cheapest alternative. It also can double as a regular cell phone--in parts of the developed world you can switch from a satellite to a standard cellular frequency. Iridium offers, for a similar price, a standard-size Japanese cell phone from Kyocera, which can be inserted into a satellite casing. But the system isn't as clear and dependable as the Motorola model.

SPOTTY. If you spend much of your time in regions where cell systems are already up, you might try Bosch Telecom's $300 multiband World 718 phone, distributed in the U.S. by Omnipoint, Bell South, and VoiceStream. By combining the world's key bands with roaming agreements, the compact World Phone accomplishes every cellular junkie's dream: It often works when you get off the plane. Omnipoint (888 784-6664, offers service in 44 countries outside the U.S., with monthly rates from $19.95 to $320. This system still has holes. The U.S. network of 4,000 towns and cities doesn't yet include Chicago, Dallas, and New Orleans, and even coverage of the New York metro area is spotty. Internationally, it excludes Japan, whose phones are incompatible with World Phone's standard.

Here in Paris, I try out a unit sent from North Carolina. The 6.8-ounce phone is chunkier than the latest from Nokia and Ericsson, but still fits in my pocket. I turn it on, and it blinks for 30 seconds, getting its bearings. Then it goes to work. My tester has a Philadelphia number. But I dial a Paris number, and the system routes it as a local call at local rates. If I were to receive U.S. calls on that phone, I would be billed international rates for up to several dollars per minute, the cost of transferring the call from Philly to Paris. Fortunately, the unit can bar incoming calls.

You can also rent cell phones as you travel. In Paris, you can get one for about $1 per minute for local calls and $4.50 a minute for out-of-country calls. Rates like that might deter some, but not those who need a phone wherever they go.