The Traveling Data Dystopia

It seems that everyone likes to talk about “disconnecting” when they travel. That is, they want to get away from checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Path, etc, while they’re away. That’s great. I’m pretty much the opposite.

Let me pre-empt the “you need to live life” type lectures by saying that, of course I want to enjoy the scenery and the company of others. But I want to be connected when I do that. I want to be able to tweet and send pictures instantly to friends and family. I want to be able to check in on Foursquare to log where I’ve been and create lists of great places for others to enjoy. And I want to get recommendations for places to eat and see from the plethora of apps out there that are great at just that.

Being connected adds to my experience while traveling, it doesn’t take away from it. You can have a different opinion, but that’s the way I feel. And that’s why I want to be connected when doing it.

Unfortunately, even in 2012, that’s a huge pain in the ass.

I recently got back from about a month away from home. It was a mixture of work and pleasure, and the majority of it was overseas. I wasn’t in some far-flung corner of the world where connections are limited, I was in highly-developed Europe. Staying connected should have been easy.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is dire. Having been screwed over before by the absolutely ridiculous fees that U.S. carriers charge for roaming fees abroad, I planned ahead for this trip. On the advice of a friend, I got an international-ready mifi unit from a company called XCom Global.

For the week that I was in London, it was great. And for the first two days I was in France, it was still great. Then it suddenly stopped working. Reboots, diagnostic tests on the unit, nothing worked. I sent an email to XCom and got a response about a day later that they were looking into the issue.

About a day after that, I got a seemingly automated email from them suggesting that I was approaching the limit of my “unlimited internet access”. (Apparently these guys learned well from the U.S. carriers — bold marketing promises like “unlimited” mean dick, the fine-print is all that matters.) But it was just a warning, not an imminent shutdown notice. Having not heard back from my XCom contact yet, I emailed again. They still weren’t sure what the issue was. They’d be back in touch.

I’m still waiting for that follow-up email.

Luckily, I found enough connection to tweet about the ordeal. Another company, FrenchConnection.fr, saw that tweet and offered to send me a new mifi unit that they promised would work in France. Within a day, I had the unit waiting for me at the hotel. Crisis averted. Sort of.

My tweet also led to a bunch of people telling me what a nightmare the French carrier situation is when it comes to pre-paid data (which Americans can relate to, of course). Both my girlfriend and I have iPhones that are unlocked and theoretically, it should be simple to pop in a SIM card from an international carrier and be set. That was the case in England, where a number of carriers offer pre-paid SIMs. We used one from 3 while there and it was brilliant. For something like $20, they gave you a SIM with unlimited data for a month. It’s actually a better deal than we have while under contract in the U.S.

In France, it’s not so simple. Apparently, it used to be fairly easy to get the same kind of deal from carriers there, but now they’re all on lock-down when it comes to dishing out data SIMs. If you want a SIM to do voice and texts, that’s easy. But all that matters to me is data. And after a few trips to the stores of several different carriers, we were assured this wasn’t possible.

Then a final trip to an Orange store (after two other unsuccessful Orange store trips) actually worked. A person gave us a SIM with data that would last a week. It was also something like $20, but whatever, mobile data seems worth far more than euros in France.

After about a week, that SIM did indeed shut off. Another trip to Orange to try to get another card (or a refill) led nowhere. No idea why.

But it was fine, we still had the mifi from FrenchConnection.fr. But after a few days of using it, I got a message that we were nearing the data limit of that unit as well. Unlike XCom, FrenchConnection was extremely helpful and offered to send another fresh unit to reset the data limit.

And I take full responsibility for the high data usage. I didn’t think I was doing anything truly data intensive like downloading torrents or streaming movies, but apparently I did blow through a ton of data in a few days.

And that points to the real problem. Even if you can manage to find a means to connect while traveling, you’re almost always going to run into the second “gotcha” of the data limits (even with “unlimited” data). In a world where we’re increasingly connected all the time (and some, like me, want to be), this is and will continue to be a problem.

The (shitty) solution for now appears to be doing quite a bit of homework before your trip. Alongside booking lodging and airfare, connection options are now going to be a part of the pre-game for traveling abroad. In England, go with 3. In France, go with FrenchConnection. Stay away from XCom — based on tweets and forums like this, I’m hardly the only one to have issues.

We can hope the U.S. carriers take their heads out of their asses long enough to one day offer fair, reasonable packages for global traveling. Or we can choose to live in reality. And sadly, reality requires a hacked together solution.

 
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