Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Avoid Outrageous Data Roaming Bills

If you’ve travelled overseas with a smart phone, you know that you have to turn off international data roaming, otherwise your telco will own your house. That’s barely an exaggeration given the cost of data roaming – here’s Telecom’s, for example – ranges from $8 per megabyte to $30 per megabyte. Yes, that megabytes. As one wag put it: I didn’t know they still made megabytes. Typically in New Zealand we pay $30-50 for a gigabyte, sometimes less than that, and our smartphones and our lifestyles are geared to use that data. These prices are thousand times higher than that.

From time to time, telcos drop these charges, often by quite a large margin, then pat themselves on the back. Just try working out what the charges are in gigabytes, not the megabytes they always quote, and see how they stack up against what you pay at home.

Why should you have to pay more when you go overseas? When you take your mobile to the UK, say, and use data, the mobile telco you are connected to in the UK ships that data back to New Zealand for your home telco to put it onto the Internet here. That’s bonkers, and its part of the reason why its all so expensive. What *should* happen is that local mobile companies wherever you are should just connect you to the Internet for a decent price, i.e. whatever they charge their own customers plus a percentage to reflect the cost of billing it back. I’m not holding my breath on this.

Anyway, that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how to avoid paying these insane charges.
While international data roaming prices remain unaffordable we need a way to make all those shiny gadgets that need Internet access work when traveling without needing a mortgage to pay for it. Here’s what worked for me.

Having several machines with me – laptop, iPad, Kindle, iPhone – I wanted a way to make them all work. So, whatever solution I came up with had to connect them all to the Internet as and when I wanted to. The way I would normally manage that is by using the personal wi-fi hotspot feature on the iPhone. (That feature came in the last major iOS upgrade; before that I would tether the phone to the laptop and run the laptop as a hotspot. Messier but doable.) The problem with doing this overseas, of course, is that it’s going to need international data roaming turned on. Either that, or I put a local SIM in the phone and lose access to the phone calls and texts that come in to my New Zealand number.

iPhones are not the only phones that can provide a hotspot. Androids do it well, for instance. And 2 Degrees were selling a cheapish Android smartphone. I bought it, set up the Android’s wi-fi hotspot, then took it with me to the UK. As soon as I got off the plane I bought a data-only SIM from Vodafone for 10 pounds. I chose Vodafone rather than, say, Orange simply because it was the first mobile shop I encountered. Not very scientific, but it worked.

I could have bought a mobile broadband stick for slightly less than the Android phone. I opted to get the phone because it gives me a backup handset if I ever need one, and because I got some experience with Android that way.

Anyway, the whole thing worked well. All my devices could use the wi-fi hotspot. I had a car charger for the Android phone with me and left it running when we were driving (not for the driver’s use!). Emails were sent and received, the web was surfed, Twitter was tweeted and Google Maps was a useful as ever. There were a couple of “learning experiences”, though:

  • Running a hot spot chews through phone battery. If you go out walking with it, you either need to turn it off and just turn it on when you need it, or face three-hour battery life.

  • Don’t assume that 3G is everywhere in the UK. Admittedly I was in some fairly remote areas, but I found that I was getting very low speed sometimes, to the extent that the web was barely usable. THis wasn’t a problem in the cities.

All in all, it was a good way to take the Internet with me while avoiding stupid roaming charges. But I shouldn’t have to go these lengths. I look forward to the day when there is sane pricing for data roaming.

posted by colin at 12:01 pm  

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