Mobile Internet For Travelers

Telstra 4G Hotspot with iPhone 4S for scale

Telstra 4G Hotspot with iPhone 4S for scale

One of the best technology investments a frequent traveler can make is in a mobile broadband hotspot, often referred to as a “mifi.” With one of these devices, you can supply a data connection to your smartphone, tablet, and laptop.

Prepaid data SIM cards are readily available at airports, train stations and in shopping centers worldwide, often for very reasonable rates. In Australia, for example, Telstra currently offers 5GB of prepaid data bundled with a 4G hotspot for AU$149. An AU$50 top-up will get you another 3GB.

You’ll want to have the carrier “unlock” the device which allows it to be used with any carrier’s network and SIM cards instead of being locked to the carrier from which it was purchased. Most US carriers make it difficult, if not impossible to unlock devices.  As long as you purchase the hotspot device outside the USA, or on the Internet from a non-US source, unlocking is a relatively simple affair.  You may need to pay an unlock fee depending on local telecommunications law, carrier policy, and time elapsed since purchase.

Why would I go to the trouble of unlocking & carrying a hotspot and buying & swapping SIM cards, you ask? According to HotelChatter’s 2012 WiFi Report, the average daily charge for hotel Internet service is $13.95. I have been charged as much as $40 for 24 hours at some properties and received abysmally slow speeds at that. Another simple but expensive option is letting your existing mobile broadband device(s) roam internationally. This can result in shocking charges. Let’s say you’re overseas, and you download Angry Birds for iOS, a 35.8 MB download as of this writing. Depending on your home carrier, you could end up paying more than three times the cost of your iPhone in data charges – a Verizon (USA) subscriber would be charged US$733, the download would cost an Aussie Telstra customer AU$550, and a Brit on O2 would pay £215 – just for the data usage to download the app.

I generally stick to the big name carriers in a given market, Telstra in Australia, for example. They may charge a bit more, but generally have the greatest coverage and strongest networks. For foreign travelers in the USA, I would recommend staying away from Verizon and Sprint in favor of AT&T or T-Mobile. While Verizon is the remnant of the old Bell monopoly, and generally has the widest and strongest network throughout the USA, they also use CDMA technology as opposed to the GSM used by virtually every other carrier on Earth, meaning you would have to buy a new device to use their services. Most Verizon devices don’t use SIM cards except to interface with their roaming partners’ networks.

You’ll want to secure your device to prevent others from stealing your data allocation or worse.  Once you’ve purchased your data and hotspot, be sure to read the instructions that came with your device, and follow the processes to do the following…
1. Change the network name (called SSID)
2. Change the network password to something meaningful. The most common default is “password” and the unscrupulous are well aware.
3. Change the administration console password – also typically set to “password” at the factory.

Depending on the carrier and the device you may need to manually set APN or Access Point Name information when you insert a new SIM card into the device. Learn from your device’s manual how to change APN settings. In a proper carrier’s shop, employees should be able to provide you with the APN value and any usernames or passwords that might be needed.  At discount electronics stores, convenience stores and the like, employees tend to be less knowledgeable about the products and services they sell, which is why I steer clear of them if I have any questions about a device or service.

Carrying these devices over the past several years, I have saved thousands of dollars for myself and my employers.  In future articles, I’ll detail the best deals I find on SIM cards.

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