We found a new way to stay connected on our recent three-month trip. The technology is still evolving, and we’re not sure it’s the best solution available, but it was a huge step forward in our ability to communicate, conduct personal and professional business long-distance, and stay connected to family and friends in other parts of the world.
The photo above shows the devices we purchased in the U.S., England, and France. These are essentially mobile phones in a USB stick, using wireless technology to connect to the Internet.
We were after both convenience and security. We tend to move around a lot on our trips, and especially on this one, we needed the ability to connect from many different locations. Most of them didn’t have an Internet café, let alone a wireless connection available. Even if they did, I’m leery of doing personal business on anything but our own secure laptop. It’s not always that pleasant sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in cramped Internet cafés, and more importantly, most do not allow uploads and downloads, making it impossible to transfer documents or photographs for e-mailing to family (or adding to blog posts).
Global standards and sharing aren’t quite here yet; we travelled in three countries, which required three devices and three plans. I’m not a technology expert (I call Clive my IT guru), but here are a few end user impressions.
U.S. Verizon – Fastest Connections but Annoying Monthly Plan
Last May, we started in the U.S. by looking all over for an AT&T store, thinking that would be the way to go. The white and yellow pages gave us numbers of stores that had closed. After being put on endless hold by at least three different AT&T 800 numbers, we gave up and went to one of the many Verizon shops that seem to be everywhere now.
Despite the fact that the U.S. cell phone we purchased with Verizon (on the same day) is a prepaid, top-up plan, Verizon didn’t offer a similar option for wireless Internet. The only choice was an annual subscription, and we chose the one for lowest estimated use at $63/month. My mother had just gone into assisted living and we knew we’d be returning to New Jersey for an extended time later in the year, so we figured we’d bite the bullet, even though it meant paying for it even when we weren’t there.
As it turned out, my son used the device during the summer, after we returned to Sydney and he was going back and forth between New Jersey and Washington, D.C. before moving into his new apartment.
Of the three services we used, Verizon was the fastest, at times almost as good as a hard-wired cable connection. But as with many Internet plans, charges skyrocket if you exceed the usage limit. We were fine until last month, when – due to a Norton upgrade combined with our monitoring world news more than we usually do because of the global financial crisis – our usage went over the limit. The bill went from the usual $63 to $118 for November.
And it still bugs us that there’s no prepaid/top-up Internet option, when Verizon markets and sells thousands of top-up cell phones.
UK “3” – Prepaid Top-Up Plan & Reasonable Download/Timeframe Limits
In England, we walked into a Carphone Warehouse shop in Felixstowe in Suffolk, and came out ten minutes later with a “3” network device. We paid 59 pounds for it, and it came with 15 initial free hours over 3 months.
The UK plan based on this combination of download usage and calendar time seems eminently reasonable to us. We haven’t yet had to pay for any additional usage or time. We used the device daily in England and Scotland, and the speed was usually slower than the U.S. Verizon connection but fast enough to get things done online without pulling your hair out in frustration while waiting for transactions to process.
We used the “3” device in the most remote places during our travels, including the Suffolk countryside and Scotland’s southern highlands. It’s amazing to me that, even when the signal strength seemed weak, we could still connect to the Internet from seemingly everywhere.
France Orange – Slow, Expensive, and Most Frustrating (if Secure) Access & Charging
In Paris, we went to a France Telecom store in the neighbourhood and bought the USB Internet stick for 69 euro. This did not include any usage or connection time, which had to be purchased on top of the cost of the device. In brief discussion with the saleswoman, we determined that the cost/benefit point of prepaid/top-up vs. monthly plan would be about six months. Less than that should be cheaper to do prepaid; longer would make sense to have a standard monthly plan.
Now I wonder. The French charge is based solely on connection time, a maximum of 6 hours/15 days at a time for 25 euros, regardless of how much usage/downloads are done. (They must have calculated an average user profile, or maybe this is why the service is relatively expensive.) We regularly had to top up for another 6 hours, despite constantly disconnecting to avoid our account going lower and lower with every minute that ticked away. Connection speed was the slowest of the three services we used, despite being in central Paris, and the main reason we had to keep purchasing more time.
Our frustration over slow speed and the need to sign on and off to limit connection time was exacerbated to the point of pulling-hair-out by the requirement to enter a random 7-character ID and 9-character password every time we connected, many with hard-to-distinguish zeroes and upper-case O’s. Two examples: V6DFYVN and 4OHY6SV81; V5VTB8O and BOU992R01. Every time we purchased another six hours, we got yet another new ID and password. There is no option to set your own; you must use the random strings provided.
I’m sure France Telecom would say their convoluted ID’s and passwords offer excellent security, and I suppose they do, from the standpoint that these devices are small and portable and would be easy to misplace or lose. The U.S. and England devices have no ID or password required, so anyone can use them as long as they still have money on them.
At least with the UK device, if lost or stolen, someone could only use it until the top-up runs out. With the Verizon device, it has a number (as do the UK and France devices) similar to a U.S. cell phone number, so I think we could report any of them stolen and the number could be locked or cancelled. However, the last words the Verizon salesman said to us were, “Don’t lose it.”
An Aussie Telstra Option?
We arrived home a few days ago to an article in an Australian computer magazine about our national carrier, Telstra, offering a new prepaid broadband service. It apparently also includes international roaming in over 20 countries where Telstra has telecommunications partners. Our guess is that this is probably subject to partner rules regarding connection and/or download time, and could likely be the equivalent of using a mobile phone in another country; i.e., pricey. It will be interesting to see how the technology is advancing, and if global sharing or standards are coming into play.
My IT guru says it’s definitely worth investigating. I will post his findings in due course.
In the meantime, using these devices has been a big leap forward for us in terms of staying in touch. It’s private, flexible, and convenient, and no longer do we have to worry about finding a decent connection somewhere. It costs money and there are some frustrations, but it’s part of the price we pay for travel and will become part of our travel budget. For us it’s worth every penny, pence, and euro cent. The value of staying in touch with loved ones is priceless.