The horror of mobile connectivity abroad

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It’s that point in time that I go through some administration and question some things. Am I still working efficiently? Can I optimise my activities? As you all know I tend to travel a lot. If you get frequent flyer status from scratch within 6 months, you’ve seen some flights/countries. From the start I created this page on my blog called ‘travelhelp‘. Everyone that starts travelling has these same experiences to go through as I have. So why not helping each other here? I will be re-using some of that information on mobility in this post.

Do you have more tips that I can put there, feel free to add! Do you have a page of your own, I’ll add the link at the bottom of this page.

The 24/7 online guy
A second thing you all know from me is that I don’t sleep and I have no off-switch. So I need to be online wherever I am, whenever I can. I have multiple battery packs for all my devices to stay at least 48 hours online without recharging. So I did my part, now I need service! Someone needs to provide me with data. There are 3 main options:

  1. Roaming
  2. Buying a local data SIM
  3. Using WiFi
This is off course the easiest way. You don’t have to change anything and just use your own data plan. But it is pretty expensive. These prices are different in every country but let me explain our Belgian situation:

At my previous provider Telenet, whom I quit due to bad reception and service, prices for roaming are really outrageous:

  • Zone 1: €0.30/MB
  • Zone 2: €11,50/MB 
  • Zone 3: €16,94/MB (includes Australia & USA)
You see how I could loose my marriage of these rates? If you don’t travel at all and go abroad only by accident and in Western Europe (ex visit Disneyland Paris wth the family) this could be beneficial to you. But if you are in that case, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blogpost 🙂

So we changed back to good old Proximus. Regular roaming at Proximus is more expensive (€0,54/MB for Europe) than at Telenet but at least they have options for frequent travellers. There are “Daily Travel” passes of 10-30-50MB/day wth prices around €0,20/MB. Perfect solution for someone that goes abroad for just a few days.

I am however a frequent traveller so I was pleased to see my provider has special monthly packages. Here are the rates

So if you look closely the small package is €0.24/MB which is already 20% cheaper than my previous provider’s regular price. But I use more than 100MB so the bigger package looks interesting. Even if I would only use 300MB a month I’d still be cheaper than the other provider. Oh and guess what: Europe+ includes Australia, China & USA!

Buying a Local SIM:
What comes in very handy here is a second phone so you can keep being online on your regular phone number. I found another helpfull tool and that is a MiFi. A MiFi is a mobile 3G/4G modem. I chose the Huawei E587. It gives WiFi for up to 5 devices at the same time. First time I used it was in central London in my hotel room and I got 17Mbps download. Make sure you buy an unlocked device!

Here are my experiences. You don’t have to go through all of them and just jump to my conclusions 🙂
  • United States: I used an AT&T card. I have not much to comment here as I got it from someone else when I got onsite. I will update this when I have to reload it on a next travel. Second trip: bought my new iPhone 5 unlocked at Apple store and went to AT&T store for a $25/mth card prepaid
  • Spain: Orange Everywhere. There are a lot of Orange shops in Spain. I paid €9,00 for the SIM card and €3,00 per day. This was a data only card that gave me up to 1GB of data.
  • UK: In London Heathrow Airport there are vending machines that offer you multiple data plans. I chose a 3-Mobile cards for £20 with 1GB data and a months to use that up. I was travelling 4 times to the UK in that month so that was really worth it. Downside: on my 4th trip I ran out of my data plan and needed to recharge. This was IMPOSSIBLE online unless you have a UK-based credit card. Just take the money b#tches! On a second trip I just bought a spare card as I travel to the UK enough.
  • Switzerland: In some countries you can get the cards in a vending machine. In Switzerland … I had to go to the Postal Office, waiting 25 minutes in the queue (yes, it is a postal office) and once I got there I went through another 25 minutes of inquiry with passports etcetera. When I wanted to pay, they only accepted a Swiss Post debet card. #FAIL. So I had to pay in cash. I was so furious at that point that I didn’t even check the currency rates they were charging me. I ended up with a SwissMobile SIM card with 250Mb for … (can’t remember but awefully expensive). Connection did go well.
  • Germany: I did a few shops before I found the following solutions at T-Mobile shop: ask for a Congstar Starting Package. It costs minimum €10,00 but the best part is that you can use that as credit. There’s a few but but but here: first of all, you have to manually enable the SIM card through a German website. Secondly, you’ll need a genuine German Address and Phone Number to activate the card (use hotel details). Lastly: please pick the right package. I first picked a phone+SMS package by accident so I had no data which was what I needed. No sweat, I even had 50% discount on that first €10,00 so I didn’t mind going through it again. You can recharge Congstar in any little small shop.
  • Russia: get some help on this one as Russians do not speak English (and I guess your Russian is not that much better). Best provider I had in Saint-Petersburg was Megafon (МегаФон) I have no clue what they sold me but it was cheap enough and reception was excellent.
  • The Netherlands: I went into a T-Mobile shop and got a “PrePaid Internet” card. It costs €9.95 of which 2,50 for the SIM and 7,50 of credit. However, they told me it is could take up to 48hrs to get registered unless you top it up with at least €10 in the machine at the shop. So for a total of €19.95 you are set. Here comes an important catch: it costs €30/MB with a max of €4,50/day which tops your service to 15MB/day. This is really outrageous and looks a lot like roaming prices. HOWEVER: if you top the card with more than €15, you’ll get 1GB of data with no limitations/day. This makes it €0,03/MB (€9,95 + €20 / 1GB). Important technical sidenote: T-Mobile does require manual APN settings!
  • Belgium: yes, even for Belgium I have an extra SIM card. I use it when friends come over so I could share my MiFi with them but also when I really am somewhere without decent WiFi and have to do some actual work. I chose Mobile Vikings. They have a data plan of only €12 per month with 2GB traffic included. The SIM card costs €15 of which you get your first month for free! Remark: If you travel to Belgium, have it ordered upfront and delivered to your hotel for example. You cannot buy the SIM in a shop.
The London Heathrow vending machine – WINNER!

Using WiFi:
WiFi is everywhere and it’s free . No it’s not! Sometimes it might be free for subscribers or so but generally it’s a real hassle to get online through WiFi. Logging in with your room number or registering with your mobile phone, … But if you look closer to that login page you probably will see something like: logging in with roaming account. This means you can use an account from another service you have already paid for. I have used 2 so here they come:

Skype-WiFi: I have only used Skype WiFi in airports. The best part is that Skype will not charge you if the provider offers free internet! This was the example in Newark (EWR) airport for example. Some other Airports where I had to pay were London Heathrow (LHR), Milan Malpensa (MXP) & Stockholm Arlanda (ARN). I was very pleased to see that the Skype rates  were flat here. With that I mean that I paid the same everywhere: €0,14/min (€8,40/hr). The problem here is that there are only very few places that offer Skype WiFi. So it is still not an alternative for the 24/7 guy. Use case: checking email/twitter/foursquare in transit or landing. Maybe contacting someone local to help you get you to your hotel.

iPass Mobilenext to roaming this beats everything in ease of use! iPass is a service that hooks into thousands of hotspots globally. I am very serious about this. Airports, gas stations, the mall, hotels, … you name it. If there is a hotspot, chances are pretty big you’ll be able to login automagically with your iPass account. Even the in-flight WiFi service of Lufthansa was supported by iPass. So is this all gold? NO – it’s outrageously expensive! I promised myself to test this service, no questions asked, for month. Luckily I saw some emails coming in that usage had been charged so after a few of those emails I checked my account:

I am terribly sorry but $300 for 2 weeks of service? There is not a single excuse for this to let it happen! This is even more expensive than roaming! The costs are calculated per time: $11/hr/device on average. The price is not that far of the Skype price as such but this was a different use case (see my take).

My Take:
I don’t think I have a good solution yet and I guess this will evolve anyhow. So let me summarise the current status:

  1. Roaming: according to your use case it is never really cheap but it definitely is the easiest way of having data service abroad.
  2. Local Data SIM: by far the cheapest way of being online abroad. Using a secondary device here is a good investment. The problem here is getting that local SIM. Shops have to be open (so no Sundays) and business travellers like we are often don’t have enough time for shopping.
  3. WiFi: is everywhere, should be very easy but all the ones I have tested are either lacking coverage (Skype) or are getting you bankrupt. Only use these services exceptionally if no other services are available (roaming/local SIM/Free WiFi).

You have guessed it right: your comments are more than welcome here!

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