Author: Zane Claes
For years, I’ve had the dream of being able to work from anywhere in the world and move about as I pleased. This summer I was poised to make the transition into this lifestyle, but there was just one small catch: I need internet. As a software engineer, as long as I have my laptop and I can keep in touch with my clients and submit projects on regular intervals, it does not matter where I am. Almost ready to board a plane to Europe and start exploring, I suddenly became aware what a ridiculous hassle an internet connection becomes when not residing in one’s own country. In the end, I found four different solutions.
A popular choice for obvious reasons: they’re almost everywhere and they’re easy to use. Sometimes you’re even lucky enough to find an unsecured/free WiFi network, but the odds of that seem to be decreasing. The big "pay-to-use" providers (ex. T-Mobile, AT&T, etc) cover a lot of turf with their many hotspots, but there are a lot of problems still. Paying to use a hotspot for 1 day costs a ludicrous amount (often in the range of $10 USD). It seems to make sense to sign up for a monthly deal with a provider: for a much more reasonable fee you can receive "unlimited" access per month. However, "unlimited" doesn’t mean what it used to, it would seem. First off, you are still bound by "fair use" restrictions of usage, and more importantly: roaming outside of your home country costs money.
Let me say that again : if you purchase access to, say, T-Mobile hotspots and then go to a neighboring country in Europe and try to use a hotspot, you will incur huge "roaming" costs. All in all, purchasing access to a single hotspot provider can be okay if you know that they have lots of hotspots around you and you don’t plan on traveling out of the country.
3G / Edge / Mobile Broadband
The Mobile Broadband approach is an enticing one because it implies that you have access to internet everywhere, which means there is no need for hotspots. If you live in the U.S. or most of Europe or Japan, odds are you can pay for Mobile Broadband for a monthly cost. This option usually comes with a monthly usage cap, but assuming you’re just using it for work here and there (not downloading), chances are you won’t have any problem. Here’s a great site with a comparison of all the major U.K. broadband providers (many of them also operate in the U.S.). Just like with Wireless hotspots, though, Mobile Broadband costs a lot if you plan on roaming outside your native country. Again, prices differ based upon the provider, but you can expect to pay several cents for every MB you download outside your home country.
Tethering a Phone as a Modem
Another possible solution is to connect your mobile phone and use it as a modem. This requires that you have a certain kind of phone and a data plan, and is still subject to the rules placed upon you by your data plan. The technical details on how to this are beyond the scope of this article, but basically the phone is connecting to the internet and relaying the data to your computer (here’s an article on exactly how to use a GSM phone as a modem, including what you’ll need and how to set it up). One advantage to this approach is that you can actually buy a single phone and simply purchase a different SIM card in each country you travel to, which means that you’ll incur a one-time setup cost in each country but otherwise essentially no roaming costs. Tethering won’t be as fast or effective as other methods, but hey, it’s something.
The idea behind Boingo is simple: they have contracts with all the wireless hotspot providers, so you sign up for only one service and get access to all the hotspots (T-Mobile, AT&T, etc.). Their national plan costs $10/mo, but they also have a global plan that costs $60/mo. For me, this was perfect – it offers a fast and reliable connection without any roaming costs. Their website even has a tool to find local availability of hotspots – even in the small town in France I’m staying in I found 25 hotspots. Hotspots are everywhere from hotels to cafes to airports to restaurants and bars. Basically, as long as I can find a Starbucks/McDonalds or other such location, I have internet access (it seems I may be eating a lot of Big Macs and drinking a lot of lattes this summer). I haven’t found anything about data restrictions except to say that you cannot host a server or otherwise use Boingo as a solution for a location that expressly requires high volumes of traffic. Still, you’ll probably want to read Boingo’s policies to be sure that they meet your needs.
Overall, I found Boingo to be by far the best option for my needs. But if you need a more consistant internet connection (meaning not just at hotspots) you might want to look more into Mobile Broadband and/or tethering your phone.
Travel well, techTravelrs!