(This is the second of three rants articles on Mobile comms - the previous one gives my opinion of the existing players)
I move a lot for my job. I commute around 1,000 miles a week, and have the occasional trip off to other continents. So how do I ensure I have reliable mobile communications wherever I go, without it costing a fortune? Well, basically I dont. But I'll show you how I get close.
Firstly, do you really want your phone to work everywhere you go? You probably do. Especially for family emergencies, flight delays, and other assorted screwups. So how do you do this?
You can enable roaming on your mobile phone contract. This may be cheap - vodafone, for instance, can give you really cheap mobile phone calls abroad if you buy an add on. Or it could be ridicuously expensive - like the time vodafone charged me £2,000 for a months european travel telecoms when they failed to apply the package.
How cheap, and how much hassle, is completely up to you.
For instance, recently I switched to Three. Three's small print (the bit you never read first) says you cannot switch on roaming on the first 90 days of your contract with a SIM only deal, as you might use it a lot, and run away without paying your bill. I think I added that bit. And given Three's 'customer support' basically means 'their way or the highway' I was stuck whilst travelling around Europe (7 countries and 1,500 miles on a motorbike) without telecoms. Bugger.
So what I did was jump onto every free wifi I could find, and use Skype. My email also worked this way, and so at least I got a little bit of contact. In Belgium, I basically walked into a shop, waved my unlocked iPhone at an assistant, got a €20 euro PAYG SIM with some data provision and walked out 10 minutes later with a working phone. Okay, a Belgian number, but at least one folks could contact me on, and one I could text from.
And the iPhone meant that I didnt lose all my contacts, etc.
So you can always do that. You'll end up with a book of micro-sims - one for each country - but that'll work.
There are companies out ther who market SIM's that will work in all countries at a fairly reasonable price. However, the ones like that you can buy in travel shops (in the small print) will charge you £1/Mb for data. So downloading a CD will cost you £60. Ouch. So watch out for that.
Okay, so telecoms is achievable with very little effort. How about data?
International data roaming is like chopping off your testicles and mailing them to your telecoms provider. Its fantastic money for them, for very little effort. Or a 'Rip Off' as we like to call it. Jake Howlett has a really good example of this here.
Data roaming is expensive. So don't do it. Most modern hotels will have decent Wifi - the ALoft and W hotels for instance have fantastic wifi. Its well worth the £10 or so per day for that. Some hotels have really awful wifi.
In those cases, you might want to try tethering your phone. In my case, I have an iPhone where tethering is carrier specific. Some carriers - such as O2 - charge you extra (Update - they dont now). Three do not. Other carriers - such as GiffGaff dont provide it at all. Which is really stupid.
And I've found that my iPhone runs hot, and the battery drains really quickly when tethering. So I try and avoid it. In the UK, I use an unlocked Three mifi 2 - a wee battery operated device that pulls 3g data in, and gives you a personal hotspot. The Mifi2 gives you up to five connected devices, so its really handy for data for the laptop, iPhone and iPad all at the same time. Lovely. And since its unlocked, its a case of finding a PAYG 3g SIM card for your target country. Its hard, but its really cheap.
For instance, I'm standing in the sleazy jet boarding queue typing this on my iPad, using the mifi 2. No. Really.
When I'm in the USA (assuming I pass the TSA audition to get in) I use a virgin mobile payg mifi. That worked really well at lotus fear. And worked really well on the hog ride with five sweaty bikers catching up on the IBM legal debacle this year.. I just walked into Best Buy and paid $100 - about as much as I'd pay n a week.
Lastly, there is Boingo. It's a wifi plan that works internationally for a fairly flat rate. I tend to be in places away from wifi, so this was less relevant for me, but I know folks who love this service. yMMV.
Why not 3G USB dongles? They mostly tend to be locked down Huwei devices and the drivers are crap. Then you have to set up a personal hotspot on your laptop for the iPad, etc. sod that for a game of soldiers. Especially bad on a locked down laptop, or an iPad...