06 September 2009

True Road Warriors Communications Tools

I am a road warrior - by choice and by happenstance. So over time I have developed a number of strategies to reduce the cost of travel. But now there is a formal advice from the Customs and Border Patrol division of the US Department of Homeland Security

So one of the items from my prior blog entry on the US Homeland Security"> advice

IE leave your laptops at home...

I actually thought about how easy will it be for someone to follow the advice. So this piece is targeted at US residents with US credit cards and US addresses. It could be modified for other countries. The idea was to see if I could save money and comply with the US rules at the same time.

I set about trying to see if there is a way to do it and to my mind find the lowest practical cost way to undertake this. The challenge for me was to build a solution that ANYONE could use so this is a sort of quick self help primer for people who travel a lot. Even if you travel a little this will be useful. Indeed for some of my friends who have adopted this - the ROI has been in a matter of days after using their usual US cell/mobile phone to call home from Europe!!!

What are the components?

Skype, (Gizmo also works)
A webmail account such as Gmail for forwarding all your mails to.
A GoogleVoice account - useful but not required if you have Skype
A cheap Blackberry mail account for global mail access
An unlocked phone - GSM preferably that supports up to 3G.
An inquisitive nature plus a fair amount of patience

I will divide this up onto voice and data. I will also assume that you are reasonably smart and can do the things I recommend. If not then there is a world of self help in the individual components. The working combination is what this blog entry is all about. Then finally I will give you the setup that I created to meet with the US Homeland Security guidelines. So this is really an omnibus primer on what to do.

For Mobile Phone access

Firstly the device – one easy way is to get yourself an unlocked phone - then buy a local SIM card. Almost everywhere you go – you can get one. Make sure you can get a Pay as You Go card. Some countries demand a local address – for that you will have to find a “friend” who can get you a local address. An alternative is to use a multi country card like Lebara. . These are cheap and can be had at almost any location. Having a local phone makes it easier for your local friends and business contacts to reach you. Simply grab the number and remember to put it on your business card (hand write it) as you give them out locally). MAKE sure they understand its temporary. In many countries mobile numbers have become quite disposable.

Another suggestion is to try and find a good Multi Sim card mobile phone. Of course this is the Cell/Mobile phone networks worst nightmare. So you will find it difficult to get one. One of the best is the Samsung D880 it can handle 2 lines concurrently it would appear although I have not used one myself. HOWEVER if you go for a newer one the actual dual sim doesn’t work as well. You have to log in and out. But the older model misses the newer US 850 band. To have a perfect dual sim card – you really need a dual radio device and so far I haven’t seen a good one of these. SOMEONE please prove me wrong.

If you do have a current US cell phone company – make sure that you sign up for the International roaming option. It can be turned on or off according to your contract and usually without extending or affecting your master contract. These usually cost about $5 a month and pay for themselves pretty quickly. WARNING, watch out for the terms of the agreement. Phone companies are pretty sneaky. They advertise a good rate but you find it’s like airline deals there is a SET UP FEE for each call. That is the killer….

Now the set up. Use GoogleVoice (the old Grand Central) to get your phones forwarded to a common number. Then the call needs to be routed over a backbone that is IP based (at no international rate to you). Technically what you are doing here is illegal as you have set yourself up as a telecoms operator. So strangely enough the big Telco boys don’t like competition. At worst you can do a call and callback service. At best you can actually use this to route the calls to your phone. Corporate users have this capability if they have local offices in the country you are visiting. GoogleVoice is good because it delivers you your voice messages via email so you can listen to a wave file on your portable device such as a blackberry or iPhone.

Getting a low cost local provider in the cents per minute range is really tough when travelling. So there are a wide variety of calling card options but I have always found this to be pretty darn inconvenient. As I am a blackberry fanatic – aka a Crackberry addict – I found one service that works well. Truphone. It works for Symbian, Ericsson and iPhones as well. So for pay as you go it’s about 5 cents for most major locations. Plus it integrates well with your own normal Blackberry, iPhone etc etc. This is the one I use most often because its easiest to use and the cost per minute is reasonable. Contrast this with my AT&T cellphone bill for use in Malaysia at over $2 per minute even on the cheap international plan.

A big note is needed here on the use of roaming voice. The new EU directive has lowered the cost of roaming voice in each country. This is a very positive sign and soon we should have pan European contracts available. However the rest of the world has one major difference. They don’t charge for home market inbound calls. So IF you can get a local inbound number to work and that is your home market – then there is no cost to you nor does it come off your minutes.

OK so we sorted voice out.

Email and Data

How about email? Well firstly the easiest and best options. The cheapest way to get your data worldwide is to sign up for a worldwide account for Blackberry in the USA. Sorry everyone else but this is ONLY possible in the USA.

The best 2 options are T-Mobile’s email plan for Blackberry. It used to be $30 but they recently bumped it to $40. Corporate accounts should still be able to get this for the lower rate even if you have to pay this yourself – it is a godsend. THEN add the international option. This can be added and subtracted. However the contract is a 2 year one. You can get a lower contract if you are prepared to provide your own phone. To do this go to eBay and look at the phone options. There is of course risk in this… The other option is AT&T. this is about $10-20 more expensive. Verizon’s phones are still not suitable so the Crackberry doesn’t work on their network and Sprint’s roaming partners are pretty awful. So you really are constrained to these 2 providers.

And Data? Don’t even think about it on your device. Data roaming can be as expensive as $1 per MEGABYTE (Australia). Just think about that when you are roaming. However now that 3G is pretty pervasive you can actually think about this. There are 2 major options. Buy a 3G dongle or the more normal find a Wife hotspot.

There has been almost universal rejection of the laptop 3G option and even 3G tethering via the phone. Sad really because it’s a pretty good idea. Instead you have the 3G dongle – but watch out for this. MAKE SURE you take your laptop with you to the store and have them install it. I have found that certain antivirus applications like Norton so mess with the installation that they don’t work at all. Very frustrating this summer in UK (O2), Germany (Blau) and France (SFR) where I tried to make this work. The letters in brackets are the local providers I tried. However there are some silver lining things. Usually with a larger network you get access to their Wife or Wimax network. In the UK the O2 account gives you FREE access to the Cloud network. So for 30 pounds I bought the dongle – which works on my son’s PC but not on mine. However I get free unlimited access to the Cloud network. So 3 days of usage and the ROI is done. I have used it for weeks… PLUS I found out that the Cloud works in other countries. So my local hotel in Berlin uses it and its no additional charge. Another option is to find places that have free or low cost Wife. In France almost all the Tourist offices now provide 1 euro a day hotspot charges. I used this in France as it was very effective with no limits. However to say that we got funny looks when we showed up after midnight in a foreign car with 4 people lit eerily by laptop light was weird!!!

So how did I do the full set up?

In order to meet with the conditions laid out on the CBP website – I bought a netbook for $299. These are pretty handy. I like the ACER. I bought a second hand unlocked Blackberry for $50. I configured a new GMAIL account for all my usual accounts and had the mail forward to that single account with its own password. Then THAT account was linked to my blackberry. My GoogleVoice account was modified to only ring the cell phone and I set a special ring tone so that I knew to send the message to voice mail – thereby leaving a message that told the caller I would call them back. I bought the local sims for my mobile and connected the mobile to Truphone. I also made sure that Truphone was loaded on my Blackberry (always have a back up!!!) . I modified my address line on my email accounts so that people know from when to when to call me on my local numbers.

What happened… I got my emails on the new (ex-eBay) Blackberry as normal and I didn’t have to do anything. My local phone works just fine – it takes about 10 seconds longer to set up a call as the Truphone application sets up the call. In most cases I can use the Truphone on my regular Blackberry but that comes off my minutes and I have to pay the local charging rate – so I tend not to use it. Voila!

Now the downsides…

Firstly its 2 extra devices you have to carry. The second Blackberry and the local phone. OK not too bad but a pain in the butt. You also need to have the peripherals (chargers etc.). I have a little black ex-EK first class bag which houses all my cables. Since I already use Sony and Blackberry phones this is not really an issue. I also use the USB charging devices. UNFORTUNATELY and here is a heads up – they are changing the standard for USBs to small devices. The new USB-micro socket will be universal on all cameras and cell phones in the coming years. Blackberry’s new 8520 has it as does many cameras. UGH another cable I have to provide.
You have to have discipline. Make sure NOT to answer that phone when it rings (turn it off!! Or send ignore). AND of course the set up is complicated. After 12 years of using a Crackberry I am used to this. So for me this was not a difficult model to work with. The incremental time is using it was negligible, it also cost me was very little – although the set up time was long – and then undoing it was also tough.

All in all – I can tell you that it IS possible to comply with the US Homeland Security advice on the subject. However the weirdoes in Washington clearly have no idea how business works. I wonder if Obama’s Crackberry can be modified to work like this…. I hope you find this useful.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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