Connectivity Issues while Abroad

Below is a comment I left for David D. Friedman (Law’s Order, Machinery of Freedom, Future Imperfect) in response to his post G1: The Saga Continues. “DDF” had taken a trip to London with his brand-spanking new G1 Android and was hoping to get it working while on the trip — he was unsuccessful. In India, I was faced with trying to get my unlocked T-mobile Blackberry 8320 up and running (and also a working USB modem for my laptop — I preferred the redundancy of EDGE/GPRS connections over tethering for ease of use and diversification of providers). Below is my response to DDF’s post, which relays my experience in depth and hits on a few observations I’ve made having made it through the experience.

Warning: unless global cell phone provider issues are a concern, this post is likely to be very boring to you. If anything, just read the bullets! I am including it below simply for the record.

DDF,

You are not alone in your roaming frustration.

I recently returned from a three week trip to India. I have a Blackberry Curve from Tmobile (and have had it for nearly a year), so I was able to unlock it prior to leaving the States — exactly as Tmobile promised you. I called; they sent me the unlock codes within 24 hours. It was a hassle-free process.

In India, aided by family members and local friends who could speak the language (AND provide a local ID to set up the account), I ended up trying two different providers (actually using sim cards for both) before successfully getting data to work – and it took about three days to get to that success point. Prepaid data apparently isn’t an option in India (even at one third provider, who had announced on the ‘net to the contrary) — I don’t know if prepaid data is available in the U.K. I ultimately had to commit to a six month barebones voice plan (Vodafone) and then add data to it for the time I was there (Being sure to cancel data before leaving).

Even after succeeding, I ended up roaming within India (no one informed me this would occur mind you) after leaving the state of Gujarat (Northwest) for the state of Karnataka (South), and managed to ramp up exorbitant data roaming charges in only about three days before I hit some predetermined credit limit (the rupee equivalent of about $60 in excess charges) and the phone just stopped working. Of course, I couldn’t figure that out or fix the problem until I got back to Gujarat. And even then, no one could explain or show me billing details to explain how I accrued such huge roaming charges (the equivalent of uploading/downloading a half gigabyte of data in three days on a blackberry using EDGE – basically an impossibility). I finally just paid them off about a week after the phone stopped working (and I was back in Gujarat), hoping for the best as I simply had to have the data.

Overall, this experience was a pretty huge bust even as it partially succeeded in at least getting my blackberry to work for maybe ten days total (and only cost me maybe $150 versus probably $1000 had I roamed internationally directly through T-mobile).

Finally, I additionally was able to use a USB modem via a third provider (Tata) to get EDGE/CDMA/GPRS connectivity on my Asus EEE. This served as a nice back-up to the blackberry even as it tied me to a, admittedly very portable, laptop. Even this connection ultimately died for unknown reasons about three days prior to leaving.

I relay my experience because I think it illustrates a few things for would-be travelers:

  • taking an unlocked phone to a foreign country in hopes of getting a sim card/short-term plan with non-standard add-ons is difficult even having done research in advance of the trip.
  • employees at cell phone providers globally know very little about the products they sell/service. You experienced that with the flexpay debacle. Expect to ask the same question in five different ways before the service representative “gets it”. Additionally, you almost have to already know the answer before talking to someone in person who can set you up — as they likely don’t already know the answer and you’ll have to insist that what you want is something they can provide.
  • a stopgap solution may be go the USB modem route. Pros: your laptop doesn’t require unlocking. The equipment is local, so its more likely to work/the local cell provider employees are more likely to know about the product. Cons: it takes a sufficiently portable laptop and still hamstrings the user with slow connectivity.
  • providers likely bank on most travelers who would need connectivity abroad being businessmen who will just charge the expense to their company
  • there is a huge opportunity here for someone (Google?) to step in as middleman and negotiate rates for customers with unlocked phones who travel abroad.
  • for most, at this time, the hassle of getting set up abroad with the local provider to avoid roaming charges simply isn’t worth the frustration (or money, even as the money is exorbitant).

Final note: when I did have full data connectivity on my blackberry, it was wonderful. Nothing like being able to email employees, check my location via Google maps (triangulation, not GPS), instant message globally, relay live cameraphone photos of elephants or monkeys or ping questions to family back home, accompanied by live photos (Such as, “Hey do you like this item I was thinking about buying for you?”).

P.S. Enjoyed “Future Imperfect” on the trip.

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