TwinF Tech Report – Russia Scandinavia and Europe

By: leelefever on January 1, 2007 - 1:15pm

 As I’ve done a few times on our trip, I’d like to get a little geeky and provide our experiences with mobile networks, Internet access and mobile blogging across regions of the world.  We try to buy a local SIM card and experiment with the local networks via prepaid mobile phone plans, when reasonable.  I cannot vouch for the completeness or accuracy of this information – it changes quickly and my perspective is one of a traveler.

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Mobile: The problem we experienced with the mobile networks in Russia was that we could never find a pre-paid SIM card plan that would work across the whole country – they may exist, but we couldn’t find one.  Megafon may be a good bet. Also, see this list of Russian providers.

We moved quickly on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so it didn’t make sense for us to get a SIM card that may only works for a few days.

Russia cities generally have both GSM and CDMA.  Our friends from the UK were able to use their phone from home to SMS family in the UK through many parts of the Trans-Siberian trip.  GPRS is also available in Russia depending on the service.

Internet:  Wifi access is growing quickly in the major cities we visited, with access being very common St. Petersburg, where our guesthouse (and many others) provided it for free.  While our hotel in Moscow didn’t have wifi, there were many cafes and bars that had great free wifi access. Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg both had cafes that advertised free wifi access, but we rarely found anything that worked for us.  Internet cafes were quite common and sporting strong connections.  However, unlike Asia, I was not able to plug my own laptop into their network.  This trend lasted through all of Europe.


Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark)

Mobile:  If there is anywhere a mobile device should work, it is Scandinavia, home of Nokia and some of the highest rates of mobile phone adoption in the world.  It’s true, it is easy to get a SIM card and the network is 3G, fast and consistent. However, the problem in traveling across Scandinavia is that the PrePaid plans do not work across countries without burning up minutes with expensive roaming.  Plus, if you get a plan in Finland and run out of minutes in Norway, it is impossible to top-up your plan.  The pre-paid plans don’t travel well.  I was hoping to find an all-Scandinavia plan but came up empty.

Internet Access:  We found free wi-fi to be quite easy to find in cities like Helsinki, Oslo and Copenhangen.  Many hotels offer wifi as an included part of the room – though you may have to ask for the password.  While wifi is easy, Internet cafes are not as easy.  We’ve found that, in general, Internet cafes are easiest to find in a) places where people cannot afford personal computers, like in SE Asia b) places on the backpacker trail, like Florence, Italy.  With Scandinavia being neither, internet cafes are harder to find – but still available.



Mobile: We entered Europe from Amsterdam, Holland and it was from here that we started our Vodafone adventure.  Vodafone is one of the major European providers that is close to providing near-seamless access across the continent.  The key point with a service like Vodafone is that you can travel across countries and still be able to top-up your prepaid account.  Vodafone stores are everywhere.  However, if you have a Vodafone card from one country and travel to another *be sure* to explain to the Vodafone rep that you need a refill voucher card for foreign cards – they are different from domestic cards.  Also, when topping-up your account from abroad, note that you must use a different menu item on the voice menu – wait for the menu to ask about a *foreign* voucher number.

We bought a Vodafone prepaid SIM card in Amsterdam and immediately connected to the voice network.  However, the phone (Palm Treo 650) would not connect to GPRS with the built-in settings.  When I would try to edit the GPRS Network settings provided by Vodafone, the phone would tell me they are locked.  After talking to the Vodafone helpline a couple of times, I learned that I had to add a new network connection with a different APN.  I’m sorry that I don’t have the info on the APN right now, but the Vodafone help line can help.

Within a couple of days, we had both GSM and GPRS working on the phone.  Then, we left Holland and quickly discovered that the coverage may be near-ubiquitous, but there are penalties for roaming.  After leaving Holland, we burned through prepaid minutes like wildfire.  I was amazed at how quickly GPRS access would burn up minutes.  Usually, international voice costs about 1 Euro for the connection and then something like .75 Euros per minute after than.  The EU is about to regulate the industry in Europe by forcing them to cut roaming charges by 40-60%I am a fan – the charges are ridiculous.

Then lesson here is to watch out for roaming charges within Europe on Vodafone.  You cannot travel across countries without roaming charges. 

Internet: In most of Europe there is no shortage of Internet cafes, particularly if backpackers are frequent.  Most cafes charge 3-5 Euros per hour of access.  No Internet cafes would allow me to plug my laptop into their network.  However, many Internet cafes have wifi that you can use for the same rate as a terminal.  We found that outside the major cities in southern Europe, wifi is less available. 

A final note:  A gadget that would be amazing to have while traveling is a wifi detector so that you could be walking through a new city and find a wifi signal with ease.   People sniffed out a wifi signal on a random section of street in Siena Italy.



In general, across all 29 countries we visited (except Japan), an unlocked GSM phone will work for voice calling.  What is much harder, but still possible nearly everywhere is connecting to GPRS (Internet, email, data).  If you absolutely need to connect to GPRS, take a very mainstream and popular phone, such as a Nokia, because the phone store people will have instructions for the connection.  I had problems using a Palm Treo 650 because many foreign data plans did not support it for GPRS.

Tech Report: Thailand Mobile Networks

By: leelefever on August 11, 2006 - 11:31pm

Part of our trip is focused on experimenting with technology and mobile networks as we travel around the world.  A tech report is our way of relating the geeky side of what we're discovering. 

In an SMS with our friend Newley Purnell in Thailand, I wrote that southern Thailand is paradise, complete with great Internet access.  In Thailand, it seems that high-speed Internet cafes are never farther than the next corner. In a number of ways, Thailand is a tech wonderland.

Our Treo 650 GSM phone integrated perfectly with the Thai network.  I asked our first taxi driver about the best mobile network and he said “AIS” and after spending nearly 2 months in Thailand I know he was right.  I bought a new SIM card ($10) with a network called “1-2-Call” and was immediately able to connect to the GPRS network (Internet access and email) and make calls.  Thanks to promotions, I often had many credits to use the GPRS network for free.  I was able to easily take pictures, send them in email to Flickr and have Flickr post the picture and entry here on TwinF immediately.  Mobile blogging was easy in Thailand and comparably cheap too.  I spent about $70 on all our mobile phones-based activities, which included daily web browsing, often for extended periods.  An unlimited data and phone plan in the US costs about $80 per month.

Mobile coverage in Thailand was ubiquitous – I don’t remember a time when we were left wanting for network service.  It was easy for us to view this kind of coverage from a tourist perspective, but the fact is that, especially in rural areas, mobile phone access is a lifeline for the Thai people.  The people who are conducting business (with or without tourism) can gain significant efficiency with a mobile network.  Look for these signs:

Bangkok and specifically the Siam Square (MBK) area of Bangkok offers some of the best technology shopping in Asia.  Bargaining is the norm and it’s advisable to pit sellers against one another to get the best price.  I bought a 2mb SD card for about US$75 and I priced the same card at $160 previously.

Before we left for the trip, I questioned the need to have a laptop computer.  In Thailand, more than any place else, the laptop came in very handy as an entertainment tool.  This, of course, is because of the incredible amount of movie and music piracy that occurs in Thailand.  Reprehensible or not, we were constantly flush with the latest flicks.

Also, I discovered a new and better way to upload pictures, blog, etc. from Internet cafes.  I used to put everything on a USB pen drive and take it to an Internet café. Now I take the whole computer with me and ask them to let me plug it into their Ethernet cable.  So far this has worked every time and I can work from the comfort and relative cleanliness of my own computer.

If you’re traveling in Thailand for more than a week or two and need to use your phone a lot, I recommend buying a new SIM card (on the AIS, 1-2-Call Network) for your mobile needs.

Tech Report: Japan

By: leelefever on August 11, 2006 - 11:11pm

Part of our trip is focused on experimenting with technology and mobile networks as we travel around the world.  A tech report is our way of relating the geeky side of what we're discovering.

Japan is one of the places in the world that one would expect to encounter the highest technology and in many ways, we were not disappointed.  However, in terms of testing and using the Japanese mobile network, we were left in the cold. Japan’s mobile network evolved without integration with the GSM international standards. So my Treo 650 was worthless in Japan.  GSM “worldphones” will not integrate with the Japanese network, though the word on the street is that this may change soon. Japan does use CDMA, but it is not as prevalent as their PDC system. 

This quote from an informative Japan Zone article may help:

Very briefly, there are three mobile phone technologies supported by the major networks within Japan - PDC (Personal Digital Cellular), CDMA (Code Divisional Multiple Access) and WCDMA. DoCoMo, Vodafone and TU-KA support the established PDC, and DoCoMo and Vodafone have also introduced the newer WCDMA, while AU supports CDMA. All three of these technologies are incompatible with each other.

It is possible to rent phones while in Japan, but we didn’t.

Within Japan, the mobile network is quite sophisticated.  One of the more advanced capabilities I experienced was when we met up with Gen Kanai in Tokyo.  He looked up a restaurant’s phone number, put the number into the GPS tool on his phone and then had the phone lead us to the restaurant with a dynamic map and car-style voice commands. Mobile GPS- very cool and something I think (hope) we’ll all have in the US soon.

I had assumed that the Japanese are big users of SMS (short message system), but this is not the case.  They do use their phones for text communication, but it all occurs via email, not SMS.  The difference is the same as it is between instant messaging and email on your home computer. 

More than any other Asian country, in-room Internet access in the norm, and often with blazing fiber-optic connection speeds.  I made a habit of bit-torrenting all sorts of things while in Japan. Internet cafés are accessible from nearly everywhere, but not nearly as pervasively as in other Asian countries. Like the US, I imagine that home computers and mobile capabilities limit demand for cafés.

Wi-fi is available somewhat ubiquitously, though we did not seek it out often. In most urban settings, I would see networks available, but mostly secured.  In the remote Alpine  mountain village of Kamikochi, where there is not really even a town, we found a strong wi-fi signal, much to our delight. 

If I could do it over again, I would likely rent a Japanese phone and give it a test run.  It is also important to remember that buying electronics abroad can sometimes be hazardous.  Products like cameras, computers, etc. are meant for the Japanese public and not visitors so they have instruction manuals, cords and even keyboards/controls built to Japanese specifications. 

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