Getting online in places you've never been before can be a huge challenge, especially if you're on the move a lot. Paying for hotel wifi and staying late at conferences or clients are options, but what about when you're visiting a country for the first time - how do you get connected?
Mobile access is hopelessly fragmented and parochial. It's fine to sign on for a plan that works in the place you spend most of your life, but what solutions are open to those of us who must visit new places in a hurry and be up and running, collaborating and communicating globally online as soon as possible?
I'm currently traveling in Europe and prepared as best as I could before I left the US, anticipating issues as I moved between big cities (easy access options) and rural areas (much tougher).
Yin and Yang
There are two halves to mobile telephony - the hardware modem and its associated software, and the network provider that transports the data. 3G networks are wide-area cellular telephone networks that have evolved to incorporate high-speed Internet access.
At this point North America and Europe are a patchwork quilt of providers - 4G is on its way (ironically sub saharan Africa and other areas that never had basic cellular build out have leapfrogged the 'developed world' with state of the art 4G) - but the reality is we are all at the mercy of the network providers.
Japan and other Asian areas use completely different network architecture and require different hardware but for most of the planet the solution is unlocked devices.
Unlocked mobile phones and modems allow you to insert different Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) chips to suit the place you are visiting. The SIM contains your International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) which is your unique subscriber number for any GSM or UMTS network.
Buying insular local service two year service plans with subsidized low cost hardware is useless if you need to travel further afield, whether a phone or modem. Roaming charges are possible if you're lucky but often you find you're traveling with an inert electronic brick once you get out of network range.
If the device is 'unlocked' it is not associated with any network because the SIMlock which restricts the device to a specific country or network provider is not active. you are therefore free to insert SIMs that will work in the place you are in.
I had a long chat with Sharlene Myers of Sierra Wireless, a company whose modems and software are often at the heart of mobile broadband connectivity, a few weeks ago in preparation for this trip. Sierra Wireless supply the locked devices to many of the networks but you can also buy unlocked devices direct, and these open up many more options.
I set out on my Europe trip with an unlocked Sierra Wireless Compass series usb modem, but this was only one half of the equation. finding service that will work where you are is hugely challenging. A wild card solution for both voice and data is the MaxRoam, 'the sim that doesn't know you are travelling'.
This is essentially a prepaid service that will find the lowest network rate wherever you are. You purchase the SIM chip and insert it in your unlocked phone or modem and it will connect with one of their partner networks to provide cheaper roaming costs. Claims of voice service in 213 countries and data in 137 make this an essential in your travel arsenal. Murphy's Law dictates you need your communication devices most when they are most likely to not work - a Max Roam is like a Swiss army knife.
Number of Bars
The third dimension is usable service. Even if you have an unlocked device and are in theory connected to a network, usability is critical. Climbing a coconut tree in order to make your phone work comes with the territory. My locked US iphone, along for the ride with me in Europe as an occasional wifi device, doesn't work as a phone in my San Francisco home either: AT&T apparently don't do hills.
This aspect is the trickiest one of all. The moment of truth is when you arrive at your next destination and attempt to get online or make a call with your local service SIM installed. The only way to know is to be forewarned with anecdotal evidence. Before this trip I asked any Swedes I met about wireless service in Southern Sweden and their recommendations, for example.
Putting it All Together
My first stop on this trip was London - excellent wifi in most of the places I visited meant few problems working there. I bought a used unlocked Nokia phone to test the MaxRoam SIM with - this is a good way to test signal strength wherever you are. I successfully made calls from an overland train to UK numbers.
I was in the Midlands at the weekend and had access to the web but tried the MaxRoam in the wireless modem; I succeeded in connecting but the service was glacially slow.
The moment of truth was arriving in rural Southern Sweden on Sunday. The Max Roam couldn't find any service so no connectivity. My plan B was to visit Three, the service provider Swedish friends told me had the best service in this area.
One of the great ironies of being a wireless consumer is that you can be pretty tech savvy, be visiting a tech savvy place like Sweden, but still be playing russian roulette with connectivity. Add in a busy travel schedule, meeting commitments and jet lag and you have a recipe many travelers are familiar with. (It's much harder for infrequent travelers traveling to places they've never been to before).
This morning I drove to Malmo, found a Tre store and made the inquiries I couldn't make from the US. (Website in Swedish: difficult to find out how to get coverage for a few days).
Happily Tre offer seven days unlimited service for 90 Kroner (about 11.66 USD) with their SIM. I took my laptop along to test it and bingo, excellent coverage. The final challenge was to find out if the area I'm typing this from now was a cellular black hole: two bars and solid service.
The next challenge will be to see if this setup - and/or the MaxRoam - will work just over the water in Copenhagen, Denmark...and possibly in Amsterdam, Holland next week...
What's your experience been like with connectivity and traveling?