Mobile Internet

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HTC HD2On my last trip I brought along my new Smartphone (an HTC HD2) and kept finding more and more uses for it. It is a sort of electronic Swiss Army Knife! Here is a partial list of uses I found:

Of course, many of these functions take advantage of Internet access to download maps, send messages, and generally keep you connected to the available sources of information. Doing this economically takes some research, and this page documents my findings.

Phone Types

Most of the world uses a system called GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) for cell phone data. An advanced variant called 3G is widely available. Some US cell phone carriers use PCS (Personal Communications Services.) Their phones cannot connect abroad. In North America, GPRS operates on the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands. In Europe, Middle East and Asia most of the providers use 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands. In order for a US phone to be able to communicate everywhere it needs to be quad-band.

But if you take your US quad-band phone to Europe and start using it, you will be "roaming" away from your home carrier, a very expensive proposition. For example, in Italy using your US T-mobile phone to phone home will cost you at least $1.29 per minute. Internet data will cost you $15 per megabyte. At that rate, paper maps are much cheaper than Google maps. A data plan with a local company, however can cost you as little as 3 Euros a week.

Phone prices are kept down in the US by subsidizing the phone purchase when the user signs a long term contract, typically two years. But to make sure that the user sticks with a carrier, the phones are "locked" to that carrier, that is they are prevented from being used on somebody else's network, which brings us to the SIM card.

SIM cards

SIM cardA SIM (subscriber identity module) card is a memory chip mounted on an inch-long piece of plastic. The SIM card has the information which differentiates your phone from all the other phones out there. It knows your phone number, it knows which carrier you are using, and it knows which bands to use. It also has extra space where you can store your important numbers, so when you change phones, you simply move your SIM card over to the new phone, and it's working.

The one exception is if you insert the SIM card from carrier A into a phone that is locked to carrier B. The locked phone will refuse to transfer its allegiance to its new master. You need an unlocked phone. Since I was already a T-Mobile customer when I bought my phone, there were no introductory discounts available, I had to pay full price. But because I was leaving for Europe, they were willing to send me the unlock code for my phone. I made a careful note of it and took it with me.

Unlocking the Phone

Each SIM card has a numeric PIN to prevent unauthorized use. Some phones will even require that the PIN be entered each time the phone is turned on, but this "feature" can usually be turned off. The first time that I inserted a new SIM in my phone, it first asked for the SIM card's PIN, then for the phone's unlock code. After that, the phone was officially unlocked, and all I needed was the SIM card PIN for the first use of a new SIM card.

Besides the SIM card PIN, I had to configure the modem settings for Internet access for each new carrier. Some phones will auto-configure, but mine was too new to be in the carrier's auto-configuration database. The main piece of information needed is the Access Point Name, an Internet address where the phone can log in for Internet access. Sometimes you need a userid and password also, but usually not. I used "gprs" and "gprs" in most cases. Each phone differs, but here are the instructions for a Windows Mobile 6 phone such as mine.

Hotel Wi-Fi

Because of the number of business travelers these days, most hotels and motels offer free Wi-Fi to their guests. High end places try to charge for it. These attempts usually involve logging in via a web page, then leaving that web page open while proceeding to use the connection. This is annoying, error-prone, and useless for Smartphones. Unfortunately many hotels in Europe have adopted this model. We were told that charges of 5 Euros per half-hour would be added to our bill, an outrageously expensive cost.

Luckily, your Smartphone can share its Internet connection with your PC. I was able to use my PC for browsing, e-mail, etc. by sharing the phone connection over a Bluetooth link. In essence, the GPRS-enabled phone becomes a modem for your PC, bypassing unreasonable hotel charges.

Finding the right SIM card in Europe

At the time I was last touring Europe (2010) there were no inexpensive SIM cards that provided for high-volume Internet access in multiple countries available. This despite the fact that many carriers had presence in multiple countries. It has to do with different regulations in each country. If you use a plan from one country in another country, roaming charges kick in and drive the cost up. The best solution is to get a new card in each country. However, in some countries (notably France), there are no data plans available without a one-year contract. There your expensive smartphone becomes simply a telephone using a prepaid voice-only SIM.

I found helpful clerks in each country who were able to compare the various offerings and come up with one that provided the best cost short-term usage solution. Usually this ended up being a pre-paid SIM card for around 20 Euros. In Switzerland, they required my Passport for identification at the time of purchase, but in Italy, they simply wrote in my name on the form.

It takes a while to activate a newly purchased SIM card, so you can't walk out of the store with everything working. Make sure you get the Access Point Name, and any userid/password (if required) so that you can set them up when the connection is ready. Customer service calls will be in the local language only, so you may need to find a willing tour guide, hotel concierge, or other local to interpret for you,

The only exception to the helpful clerk rule that I came across was at the Vodaphone store near the Rialto bridge in Venice. I had purchased my SIM card earlier from a very nice clerk in Verona, attracted by a 3 Euro/week Internet price. The configuration was not working and the Venetian clerk was incredibly rude, arrogant, and incompetent, refusing to even look at the problem. His only response was that "Of course it wouldn't work in a T-Mobile phone." I later figured out that the Access Point Name was case-sensitive, and my input method had put in "mobile.Vodaphone.it" instead of "mobile.vodaphone.it". Once I corrected it, I had excellent access all over Italy.

France is one of the most advanced countries in the world as far as the availability of broadband, but as of mid-2011, that does not extend to mobile broadband. I could find no SIM cards available with a data plan except those that required a one-year contract. I ended up buying a simple pre-paid telephone card, forwarding my regular phone numbers to it, and turning off my data plan. I was still able to get some data via Wi-Fi from place to place, but it was spotty.

Don't forget your Charger!

USB ChargerPlug adapterMost smart phones charge via their USB cable, but if you don't have a computer along, where do you connect your USB cable? Try one of the small, cheap USB chargers. Then don't forget your plug adapter so you can actually plug it in! Get a couple of the simple two prong ones: they will fit down inside a European socket so that a "wall wart" type power supply can be used, and they will fit over a three prong plug so it can be plugged in. Besides, they're cheap!



2010, F. W. Schneider
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