Darren shares some of the challenges of staying connected while we travel.
One of our biggest challenges on this trip is finding Internet. We need Internet in order to publish our educational materials and also to answer the questions that we get from students. Our primary strategy has been to only book hotel rooms that offer free or inexpensive Internet. This way, we can at least check our email at night and in the morning when we are typically in our room. However, in order to give our subscribers the feeling that they are “traveling right along with us”, we must have mobile Internet access so that we can post updates and answer questions throughout the day.
In 2003, we took our kids around the world on an around-the-world trip. We used a Casio Cassiopeia E11 to write emails and reformat photos. We then transferred the emails and the photos to a CompactFlash card which we could later upload from an Internet Cafe. This worked well at the time. Even the smallest towns seemed to have an Internet Cafe. And, in general; they were cheap (a few dollars per hour). But the stakes have been raised on this trip. Instead of a single weekly email with up to 10 photos, we want to communicate at least once per day. The amount of data we want to send has increased too. For example, many of our videos are over 100MB. (That’s a 100x increase!)
In order to handle the increased demands for connectivity, we purchased phones on two competing networks. Sandy has AT&T and Darren signed up with Verizon. However, the international data plans are expensive ($30 on top of a normal domestic one) and they don’t support all of the countries that we plan to visit. In countries that didn’t have coverage, using data can cost $20 USD per MB (just checking your email once can take 1MB)! Worse, the same countries that are not covered under international plans are the same countries that don’t have hotels with Wifi or Internet cafes on every corner. The country of Laos is an example and we will be visiting more of these countries between now and when we arrive in Europe.
Darren was able to get his phone unlocked before we left home, which means that he can use other SIM cards on the road. (Basically, the SIM card determines the carrier and phone number of the phone.) Our first experiment with locally-purchased SIM cards was in Singapore. We purchased a SingTel SIM card as we arrived into the country, just after we collected our luggage. It cost $20 Singapore dollars, which is about $16 USD. Inside the wafer-thin package were instructions in several languages, including English. The voice service worked right away. Darren made a test call to Sandy’s phone and she made one back to the number that called her – his new phone number with a Singapore country code. But the data portion (that which is needed for Internet access) required some configuration. After several hours of trying; Darren finally got it to work! This allowed him to check his email and also update our location on our Live Tracker page. This was an experiment at the time, because Sandy had access under her International Data Plan and our hotel has WiFi as well.
Since we were only in Malaysia for three days, the next place it made sense to try again was Thailand. However, even though Darren configured everything as specified on the Thailand TRUEMOVE-H website, he wasn’t able to get it to work. Darren even tried calling TRUE’s call center, but there was no one available who could help him in English. The good news is that we only spent 149 Baht or $4.84 USD trying all of this. Nevertheless, we were encouraged by our SIM card experiments thus far, so we decided to put Darren’s Verizon plan on hold for 90 days.
In Laos, we were able to purchase an ETL SIM card at the bus station while waiting to leave on the bus from the Thai-Lao border to Luang Namtha. While the SingTel card had detailed instructions and TRUE had pretty detailed information on their website, the ETL card that Darren purchased said nothing about data and didn’t list their website. Darren was surprised when he called the call center and found someone that spoke “a little” English. Based on his prior experiments, he knew he needed something called a Access Point Name or APN. Darren asked the young man for the APN and was told to use “etlnet” and to leave the rest of the parameters defaulted. After making the needed changes and restarting the phone, it worked!
Next, Darren wanted to figure out his balance, the cost to transfer a MB of data and how much more credit he should purchase before we really got off the grid in Laos. By calling the phone number 122 and hanging up, he found that he could have his balance sent as a text message (we had 15,000 Kip or around $2 USD credit.). He then turned data on and brought up google.com. Using a data monitoring tool, he was able to determine how much data he transferred. Then, by checking his balance again, he figured out that transferring a MB cost 360 Kip or about $0.04 USD. So instead of paying $20 USD per MB by using one of our plans, we got the same service for only $0.04 / MB by buying direct! Darren purchased another 10,000 kip (a little more than $1 USD) of credit and added it to his account by entering *121*, followed by a number that was revealed on a scratcher card. Finally, he checked his balance again and confirmed that he had 25,000 Kip ($3 USD) or the equivalent of 85MB!
Now, as long as we had a signal, Darren could send a photo and a short textual update to Facebook and Twitter (we can do this using the Facebook and Twitter apps or by sending an email to a special email address.). We can update our location on our Live Tracker page using an app called Latify. We have just started to experiment making audio updates with an application called Audioboo and video updates using uStream. Of course, we also have access to email so we can answer questions that we receive from students. Overall, these tools, as well as the connectivity to the Internet, give our trip a level of interactivity not available in the past.
Our next destination after returning to Thailand is Nepal. We are here for three weeks. Our strategy is to purchase a SIM card as soon as we arrive. Since neither of our International Data Plans cover Nepal, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, the first time we will consider turning these plans back on is in July when to travel to Europe. How often you hear from us in the next month will depend on our level of success.