Sprint returns to roaming in western Kansas

A funny thing happened to Olathe resident Hai Chen on a recent drive through western Kansas. His Sprint phone showed it was roaming.

Chen’s car was acting up and he was glad to have service.

“Roaming or not, we were just going to use it as is,” Chen said.

Sprint customers haven’t seen roaming in those parts since 2005. But they’re seeing it again.

Roaming has returned as part of Sprint’s plan to take on what one executive called a handful of “egregious users,” some of whom cost the company $10,000 a month for their heavy data use. Sprint can go after them thanks to recent contract changes with other wireless networks in the area.

Most customers will notice only the roaming indicator on their phones. Sprint isn’t bringing back the roaming charges that plagued cellphone users in the past.

Don’t remember roaming? It means you’ve traveled beyond your wireless carrier’s network. Your phone picks up service on another carrier’s network.

Years ago, roaming also meant the meter was running. Carriers routinely charged customers higher by-the-minute rates on roaming calls.

Roaming disappeared in 2005 for Sprint customers living in or traveling through western Kansas. The company struck roaming deals with local networks there and picked up the roaming tab for customers.

More to the point of what’s happening now, Sprint also counted all that territory as part of the Sprint network. Its published coverage maps and Sprint phones showed the area as in-network.

Sprint customers have been roaming the whole time. They just didn’t know it.

One reason is that the other carriers — Nex-Tech Wireless and United Wireless — built and maintained their networks to match Sprint’s. It was part of the companies’ roaming agreements with Sprint.

Last month, those roaming agreements expired and new ones took their places.

Sprint customers continue to get the same service through Nex-Tech and United in western Kansas. And Sprint still pays the roaming charges, though it is possible that someone with a really old service plan at Sprint might see a bill.

The big difference comes for those egregious users, said Paul Schieber, Sprint’s vice president of roaming and access planning.

“It’s a handful of folks,” Schieber said, who “cost us an awful lot of money.”

To be specific, they’re data hogs.

“Data” means the stream of digital signals that deliver videos, apps, photos and other things besides phone calls to smartphones. Data use takes up large amounts of wireless networks’ capacity and is growing by leaps and bounds as more and more customers have smartphones.

In 2005, data was unheard of in the cellphone world. Voice was pretty much what phones did until smartphones began to spread a few years later.

Sprint now offers unlimited data to its subscribers: Use all you want, we’ve got room.

The two largest carriers, Verizon and AT&T, no longer offer unlimited data plans to new customers. They offer shared data plans that allow customers to buy a set amount of data for each month — often shared among devices and family members — and charge extra for using more data.

Sprint’s unlimited data plan, however, applies only in-network. Roaming data are capped, depending on the customer’s service plan.

Schieber said Sprint couldn’t touch its egregious users in western Kansas because the area was treated as in-network under the old roaming agreements with Nex-Tech and United.

Sprint had no choice but to smile and pay, though, according to Schieber, one ran up a roaming tab of $10,000 in a month.

Now, because western Kansas is roaming territory, Sprint can treat those few as heavy roaming customers. Schieber said the company could given them a phone call and perhaps ask that they leave Sprint.

Other less-than-egregious users also might hear from Sprint if the switch in western Kansas leads them to use more roaming data than the roaming caps allow.

Sprint customers with a two-year service contract are limited to 300 megabytes of roaming data use a month. Customers who buy service month to month are allowed 100 megabytes.

The limit is unlikely to cause a problem for Kansas City area vacationers heading for Colorado. They will start roaming about the time Salina, Kan., disappears in the rearview mirror and keep roaming until they reach Limon, Colo.

But Schieber said a Sprint customer who goes over the limit for one month can relax. Nothing will happen. Two months in a row, or twice in three months, probably means a call from Sprint.

Residents of western Kansas who have Sprint phones will have more trouble staying under the caps. There are roaming voice caps too.

Sprint, however, would be surprised to learn that it has subscribers living in the roaming areas. It hasn’t marketed Sprint service there because it was roaming territory.

In any case, the company said it will waive early termination fees for customers who roam and want out of their contracts.

And if a call comes, Schieber said, Sprint will suggest remedies to data roaming such as using Wi-Fi connections when possible to reach the Internet rather than using the wireless network.

It’s the same advice Verizon, for example, gives subscribers on its new shared data plans.