While out driving, I need a constant supply of music, talk radio and other such noisy things to keep my brain from eating itself.  A few weeks ago, I was out doing a photoshoot in Broken Bow, in the southeast corner of Oklahoma. That part of the state isn’t very well connected the rest of the modern world aside from a few paved roads, electricity, and running water. Internet access is spotty, and cell phone access is nigh on non-existent.

I was not surprised to experience slow data, dropped calls, and complete loss of signal. But I was able to use the TuneIn app to buffer up an hour of online radio. By that evening however, I received notification from AT&T that I had “reached at least 100MB offnet data usage in this billing cycle.” In other words, I was roaming. Not only was I roaming, but the carrier notification in the upper-left of my screen still said “AT&T”. Within 15 minutes of receiving the email from AT&T, the notification switched from “AT&T” to “Off Network” for the first time in the history of me owning this device (and for the first time while traveling to this part of the state.)

Here are the problems I have with this:

  1. The carrier notification in the upper-left of my phone said “AT&T” the entire time, and only switched to “Off Network” AFTER I received email notification that I was roaming.
  2. The “Data Roaming” feature in iOS was disabled, and always has been. (Cellular Data was enabled or else what’s the point?)

Called AT&T

They said that disabling “Data Roaming” in iOS only disables data if I am traveling outside of the US. (Apple’s iPhone documentation does not mention this at all.) AT&T said that in order to fully prevent data roaming charges, I would have to disable “Cellular Data” as well as “Data Roaming”. This feature completely disables data over cellular, and it would require me to manually enable it when I am back in AT&T’s coverage area. But if the carrier name in the upper-left of my phone always says AT&T, even when I am roaming, how am I to tell when I am actually in AT&T’s coverage area versus silently incurring off-network data roaming charges?

Called Apple

They said that disabling “Data Roaming” in iOS should actually disable data roaming (because well, that IS what it says, right?), but here’s a fun fact — carriers are allowed to override carrier settings in iOS. Basically, AT&T is ignoring this feature, and making that “Data Roaming” switch no different from that mystery light switch in your hallway which does absolutely nothing. (The difference being that instead of being able to make that silly joke that you’re turning the lights on in the neighbor’s house, AT&T is reaping a shitload of money from you, not telling you until after they have done it, and then blaming you for being stupid.)

In comparison, a friend of mine was on the road trip with me, and she had an Android device on T-Mobile’s network. She had the equivalent settings in her software (Cellular Data = ON, Data Roaming = OFF), and to my total lack of surprise, her phone had no signal in the area, never attempted to roam, and it automatically re-connected to T-Mobile when we left the area. This is exactly how I would expect those features to operate. Not only does this functionality not exist on iOS over AT&T, but there is no effort from either company to enable it.

If this is a bug, they need to get on it. If this is a feature, it is not documented, and not user friendly in the slightest.