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Internet on the Move PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

INTERNET ON THE MOVE

Barry and Margaret Williamson

Updated March 2009

Our contract with Vodafone, described below, ended in expensive farce with Vodafone sending in the debt collectors!

Read all about it by clicking on: KEEP AWAY FROM VODAFONE!

Introduction

We don't know what you already know - and you may know more than we do, so please don't feel patronised by this article. It is the record of our experience. As ever, we would welcome your comments on what we write and on your own experience, to share with other travellers through the website. Contact Us!

The main overall point is that there is no single solution to the problem of keeping in contact with the internet when on the move. We have identified 7 main means of connection and you need to be equipped for the means appropriate for you, your equipment and your mode of travel.

In the first part of this article (Methods 1, 2 and 3), we assume that you are travelling in a motorhome with your own laptop and other equipment.

In the second part (Methods 4, 5, 6 and 7), we assume you don't have a laptop with you or you can't use the laptop in your motorhome.

Motorhoming

You can read this article in conjunction with the relevant items in our 'A to Z of Long-term Motorhoming'.

Need for an Inverter. Before getting into accessing the internet, we would advise you to take an inverter to ensure that you can use your laptop, and keep its battery charged, when you don't have a mains hook-up. A laptop can take up to 100 watts when running with its battery charging and this is the equivalent of 2 headlight bulbs! Even a good 12-volt battery in the motorhome will soon run down with that load. So another item to consider is a solar panel to keep the motorhome's battery charged, if you aren't driving a lot and you don't have a regular mains connection.

The inverter may run hot and draw too much current from the 12-volt battery if it has to both charge the laptop battery and run the laptop at the same time. Our tip is to recharge the laptop battery from the inverter when the laptop is switched off, and then still use the inverter while the laptop is in use.

Method 1: Use of WiFi Hotspots. Make sure that your laptop has the facility for wireless internet (WiFi). For historical reasons, we have 2 laptops a Dell which didn't have WiFi and a much lighter Fujitsu which does. Recently, in Sweden, we bought a ₤25 gizmo which plugs into the USB port of the Dell so that it now has WiFi as well.

If you are not sure what WiFi is, or you want to know about your nearest WiFi hotspot, just type 'wifi' (with or without capitals or hyphen) into Google!

WiFi is becoming increasingly available on campsites (we are writing this from a campground in Denmark, 12 euros a night including free Wifi!); in restaurants (McDonalds, Starbucks, etc); hotels; at airports in fact there are WiFi hotspots in thousands of places in the UK and about 6 in Greece! Sometimes it's 'free' (part of the service), sometimes safeguarded with a user name and password to ensure you buy a cup of coffee first, sometimes for a nominal charge (our last campground in Denmark charged a couple of pounds for 7 days' use), and sometimes it's absurdly overpriced (in Ostersund, Sweden it was over ₤1 for half an hour so we didn't use it).

You can take out a contract to pay a regular monthly sum (around ₤15) to access hotspots provided by companies such as BT. Visit www.thecloud.net and www.btopenzone.com.

It is sometimes possible to park the motorhome near a free, open-access WiFi hotspot and not even have to buy a coffee! In fact, it is surprising how many open-access WiFi connections we have come across, but there needs to be a word of warning about security. For example, don't access your bank accounts or enter credit card details in a public place over an unsecured WiFi connection.

WiFi transmitters often have a short range (hence the term 'hotspot') and you may need to manoeuvre on a campsite to get a good signal. The campsite manager should know the best places to park (within line of sight of the aerial) and you will need to point your table window in the right direction. WiFi devices that plug into a USB port have the advantage of being on a long lead which can be hung in the window!

For the future, more powerful WiFi transmitters will cover wider areas, up to the size of a small town.

WiFi does not need an internet provider or any protocol to access it, other than your own user name and password, if required. It's like a broadband connection, though not as fast, despite the claim that it might be 55MB/sec! There is no time limit and no counting of megabytes (see 2, below!)

Method 2: Use a GPRS/3G Data Card. From Movember 2006 until September 2007, we  experimented with a Vodafone GPRS/3G data card (hereafter called 'Card'), which plugs into the PC card slot on the laptop. The Card was also available from O2 (formerly BT) and other suppliers in the UK. It connected the laptop directly to the internet through the mobile phone network or through a recognised WiFi hotspot, if available. The Card included a normal SIM card with its own UK number, enabling you to write and receive text messages, charged in the normal way. Being able to write a text message on a keyboard is a great blessing!

When used for internet access, what is measured and may be charged for is the number of bytes entering and leaving the card. Not the time! Just as well, since it can be very slow. We have almost never been out of range of a mobile phone network even in remote Lapland although we do try. GPRS is the most common connection; 3G is rare away from city and business centres. GPRS is nominally 56kB/second which is as slow as a landline modem. In practice, it can be very slow indeed with lots of long pregnant pauses! 3G is faster but not in the same league as broadband and still subject to pausing when the line or server is busy.

Use of the Card is expensive for travellers: the only Vodafone contract which included use outside the UK was for one year (the minimum possible) at ₤95 + VAT per month. This allowed unlimited use within the UK, plus 100MB per month on 'preferred' networks when roaming. We found 100MB (3.33 MB a day, more in February) is enough for our email load (we prepared text and images off-line), maintaining our website and some browsing, including internet banking and ferry booking-type operations. We never exceeded 100MB (which would incur extra charges) the total use in a given month was displayed as part of the software and we kept our own records in a spreadsheet. This helped to pace the use over the month.

The problem, and for us it was a BIG problem, was that Vodafone didn't seem very clear about which networks in any given country are what they call 'preferred' - or even if the country has a preferred network. This is still true. The difference is very important. Use of a preferred network meant we could use it freely within our 100MB limit. However, we sometimes had to pay extra local charges, through our monthly direct debit account, in addition to the monthly ₤95 plus VAT.

The extra charges varied from about ₤1 per MB in Lithuania to ₤10 per MB in Poland. Imagine using 100MB a month in Poland! In every case (and there were 4 cases covering several countries) Vodafone made a refund on these extra charges, but only after a lengthy exchange of emails. In each case we had arguments about what network is preferred and what isn't! We went by the list of networks published on their website (www.vodafone.co.uk) but Vodafone's computer did not.

There are non-problem countries such as France, Greece, Sweden and Germany, where there are established Vodafone networks; others, like Romania and Norway, present big problems! Make a list of potential countries and ask lots of questions by email to:

Rebecca and Kevin Watts of Cairns write: "We've read a couple of articles where the EU has been looking into roaming charges on mobile phones, let's hope that that is extended to data while roaming. Visit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4692274.stm

Greece might have WiFi before then though."

In September 2007, we began using the newly-introduced Vodafone USB Modem. This plugged into a USB port and contained its own software for PC users. Software on a CD was supplied for Mac users. This means, on a PC, it could work on any PC or laptop - it is simply 'PlugNPlay'!

The device was supplied free for unlimited use in the UK at a cost, we were told, of ₤25 per month, plus VAT. Depending on the Vodafone network, it was said to operate at up to 1.4MB/s. On the usual GPRS network, its maximum speed is a more modest 56kB/s or less.

We were told that roaming would be charged at ₤8.50 per 24 hours (in addition to the monthly charge) when using 'preferred' networks around the world. The modem is tri-band enabling use in the USA, including their high-speed 3G networks.

However, this contract with Vodafone ended in expensive farce with Vodafone sending in the debt collectors!

Read all about it by clicking on: KEEP AWAY FROM VODAFONE!

Method 3: Use a Modem. It's also possible to use a modem linked to your mobile phone or to an accessible landline (perhaps at a campground). The connection between the phone and laptop can be by wire or, in the case of a laptop, by infra-red or Bluetooth. You will need an Internet Service Provider for this, in the normal way, preferably one with an accessible phone number (and not a UK number if you are in Turkey!) The phone call and ISP services may well be paid for according to time used, so pre-preparation and downloading for off-line reading are essential!

Outside the Motorhome

Cyclists maintain contact with home and friends and continue to feed text and images into their websites, as they pedal along. See, for example, www.cyclingtoindia.com. How do they do it? How can motorhomers do it if they haven't got a laptop, or if there isn't a WiFi hotspot or mobile phone network anywhere near their motorhome? Or if they can't afford the expense of mobile phone networks? Read on!

Method 4: Use the Public Library. Public Libraries often provide free internet access. This is true everywhere in the UK and widespread throughout Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. We've found libraries reliable also in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Usually a machine has to be booked ahead and the time may be limited, to as little as 15 minutes or as much as an hour. Less busy libraries may have a free computer without booking and they may not impose strict time limits if no-one is waiting.

Rarely have we heard of a charge being made for this library service and it was only in the UK that any fuss was made about being a member of the library or living in the Parish. (Fleetwood wanted a local address, temporary membership and a refundable ₤10 deposit). Libraries will often print pages for you and invariably make a small charge per page, as they do for photocopying.

Sometimes, a library may have a corner where you can use your own laptop: through a broadband access point or via WiFi. We first met this in the library in Bled at the head of Slovenia's Lake Bled in the Julian Alps.

The main problem with library use that we have found is being able to use data prepared off-line or collecting data to take away. If there is an accessible USB port, we plug our 125MB memory stick in. A longish lead added to the stick is useful, in case the USB port is awkward to access. Librarians vary from the very helpful and well-informed, to those who know nothing and leave you alone, to those who look shocked at the very idea that you might want to insert your memory stick into their inaccessible port! So better not to ask in the last 2 cases! Just do it.

Earlier, before the advent of memory sticks, we used 3.5 inch floppies to carry data back and forth, which is still possible sometimes, as is a CD.

In Greece forget the use of libraries they haven't got any!

Method 5: Use Tourist Information Centres/Campsite Offices. Quite often a Tourist Information Centre will have a computer available (usually just one) for a short time (perhaps 15 minutes) for checking emails. If they are not busy, this time may stretch. They can also tell you of any other internet facilities in their town.

It's not unusual for campsite offices (Reception) to have an ancient machine connected to the net for their own emails and bookings. They may have an 'official' procedure for its use for a limited time free or for a small charge. If you stay long on a campsite and strike up good relationships, the use of the campsite machine may become routine. On a winter campsite in Greece, we keep Yanni in cigarettes; in return he takes a break from playing computer games now and again.

Method 6: Use Internet Cafes and Centres. A vanishing breed in affluent northern Europe, but still active in the south and east, are the specialist internet centres and cafes. In Hungary, we used an internet nightclub! In Greece, bars may have computers for games. In these commercial operations, you pay by the hour and are unlikely to have any problem with importing and exporting data. A good internet centre may offer specialist services, such as scanning, OCR, making a CD from digital camera images, colour and photograph printing, etc. The downside is that they can be expensive and they may be noisy, busy with adolescents playing games with sound effects. Or even scary, frequented by silent men of a certain age and disposition, reminding themselves of former fantasies.

More commonly than in libraries, an internet centre may have a corner where you can use your own laptop: through a broadband access point or via WiFi. We first met this in a centre on Queen Street, the main street in Auckland, New Zealand.

Method 7: Ask a Friend: There is another way to access the internet and that is to visit and stay with a friend. In their back bedroom, perhaps the one you are sleeping in, there will be a large desk on which stands a PC with a broadband connection that costs them ₤14 per month. But this will make you feel unhappy about all the trouble and expense you have been going to in order to email them, when they find it so difficult to reply!

Finally, A Word of Warning: Rebecca Watts of Cairns, designer and technical manager of this website, writes: "When you finish your use of a public computer, you should delete all the temporary files and your Internet history:

1. In Internet Explorer, click 'Tools', and then click 'Internet Options'.

2. On the 'General' tab, under 'Temporary Internet files', click 'Delete Files', and then click 'Delete Cookies'.

3. Under 'History', click 'Clear History'."