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May 31, 2011

Keeping a Moving Boatload of Devices Online

Problem: How can Americans stay online for three weeks on a canal boat in Southern France?

One answer: MiFi from Xcom Global.

I usually spend much too much of my travel time trying to stay connected. WiFi boosters with monster antennas do let you sign onto distant hotspots – but they're a constant tinkering-when-you-should-be sightseeing opportunity if there ever was one. My Verizon MiFi hotspot and Mary's iPhone will work internationally – but the communication cost for staying online would be more than our airfare.

You can buy local USB modems in the countries you've traveled to along with prepaid usage on a cellular data network. If you do that and don't speak the native language, you should make sure the device is activated and working before you leave the phone store where you bought it. Trouble with the USB modem is that it only works with computers and only connects one of them at a time. Once I get connected, everyone else wants to use my computer. We're lined up for a keyboard when we should be in museums.

So this time I ordered a Mifi hotspot from XCOM Global. It costs $14.95 each travel day for "unlimited" access and is available currently for 40 countries. Like all MiFi devices, it uses a local cellular data network to get connectivity and is accessible from your devices via WiFi. There are good coverage maps linked from the XCOM site to let you know what to expect in the exact areas where you're going. If only EDGE (about dialup speed) is available; it's not worth doing; you want 3G. Coverage in France is provided by Orange, which is why I put "unlimited" in quotes. Orange has a fair use policy (FUP) and will slow you down if you use too much of your "unlimited" data. Not a problem unless you do huge downloads or watch movies.

They ship it to you a couple of days before you say you're leaving and send you a prepaid mailer to send it immediately back. You don't start paying until you leave the country; and, so long as you do send it right back, you don't pay for the days after you return.

Five devices at once can connect. That turned out to be really useful but none of the devices except mine were a computer. We rotated boat guests and had two Blackberries, five iPhones, my droid, and two iPads connected at different times. Skype was unusable on the computer. I didn't try it again but that was a disappointment. Skype on my droid said it wouldn't work since I wasn't connected to Verizon (NOT what I wanted to do). There are many other VoIP apps for the droid but I didn't test any of them since I didn't really need to make many calls.

The first night we were in a hotel with WiFi only in the lobby. No problem for me since I had my MiFi. The next day we were on a TGV; the MiFi worked pretty well but seemed to have trouble switching from one tower to another. Maybe it's not designed for traveling twice as fast as a car. Works fine at the 8km/hour speed of the canal boat.

$14.95/day is not cheap – about what you pay in a hotel that doesn't have free WiFi. Of course, it's much, much cheaper than data roaming on a US cellular account. Prices should come down. Also I'd expect that boat rental places will offer connectivity as an option just as hotels do.

So it worked. I didn't spend all my time trying to get online – just spent too much time online watching the relentless rise of Lake Champlain. The only time I went to a computer/phone store was when I fried my Toshiba power supply (didn't check to see if it could handle 220 volt European power) and had to get a replacement. And guests were as connected as they wanted to be.

Related Posts:

They're Phone Adapters; They're Toast; WiFi Did It

Why did Mary's AT&T iPhone Ask To Use Verizon?

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