When I was abroad the last two weeks in the US and in France I had much time to try wireless data roaming with different options like GPRS, Wi-Fi or even a simple CSD call and it's still frustrating to be forced to stay offline in this connected and Internet focused world.
My flight from Frankfurt in Germany to Seattle had a stop-over in Copenhagen, Denmark and because I forgot to download an attachment from my girlfriend I tried to access my mail-server from my O2 xda. Orange Denmark indicated a "G" on my xda, which means the GPRS service is available and the device is attached to it but there was no way to get a connection. Not to my mail-server, nor to MSN Messenger or the Web. What a frustrating experience. You are in the neighborhood country, not more then 100 km away from the border and you are offline. So I started my trip to Seattle without the attachment anyway.
Arrived in Seattle the first thing I did was switching on my mobiles (I took two with me for different SIM cards of different carriers) again to check which networks are available and I noticed a real improvement from the last time I was in Seattle. Three networks was available: VoiceStream/T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless and Cingular which gave me the hope that one of this networks might already have a GPRS Roaming agreement with my carriers in place but this time I even didn't got the GPRS notification which means no way to connect wireless. Ouch, for me as a real wireless data junkie this was frustrating (around 2/3 of my monthly GSM bill are GPRS usage).
When I arrived at the hotel in downtown Seattle I've realized that a Starbucks was right in the hotel building and beside my wireless addiction I have a second one: coffee. Not only black coffee like I used to drink it in Germany but also flavored one like available in Starbucks. Since it was a long flight and I was pretty tired, I decided to went for a coffee after the check-in and I found this:
This was the solution for me, Starbucks and W-LAN, served by "T-Mobile HotSpot".
W-LAN as an alternative to GPRS?
Back in my hotel room, I've checked the T-Mobile/Starbucks HotSpot page for the conditions and the folks from T-Mobile seem to realize what customers need, the offers three kinds of price plans:
- Monthly Subscription Plans with unlimited access
- Prepay Plans with a predefined value of minutes
- Metered Plans with a pay as you go subscription
I decided to go with the metered plan which seemed to be pretty expensive on the first sight (US$ 2.99 for the first 15 minutes and after US$ 0.25 per minute) but if you compare it with GSM/GPRS plans it's pretty reasonable, not to forget that International GPRS Roaming would be even more expensive!
At least this gave me the option to stay connected as long as I was in the city and a Starbucks was in my neighborhood. However, as soon as I left Seattle I was disconnected again, even if the three GSM networks around me have GPRS services in place.
When I traveled back to Europe we had around 6 hours to spend on the airport and here I realized the next problem. Starbucks is available on Tacoma airport in Seattle but they don't serve Wi-Fi access there. It's interesting to see that a location like the airport isn't covered because more or less all marketing flyers I saw so far had at least one picture of busy business traveler using it's Notebook or even PDA to access the Internet and also this is always a reason why for mobile data, of the marketing folks out there, to use the devices to access company data while hanging around on an airport. Now I'm at an airport and no coverage!? Hmmmâ€¦ Doesn't a sound like the reality fulfill what marketing promised?
Even if the Starbucks/T-Mobile offer is a great one within cities (please also note, that even within cities not all Starbucks offer W-LAN coverage) it's not what the wireless Internet user looks one but only a pretty good alternative. Overall I want to access my data wherever I'm, not wherever Starbucks have an outlet. It's a good choice if it is available because you could reduce your transmission costs but I don't want to be limited at all. It's even more frustrating if you are willing to pay for the service, you know the service is available and just because no agreement between the operators is in place the service is locked for you.
This reminds me pretty much of the time, 10 years ago, when I was traveling within Europe and not much voice roaming agreements was in place.
An interesting side note is, that my Italian Vodafone Omnitel prepaid card I bought last year for my holidays in Italy got the same GPRS attach like my other card got in Copenhagen but again I wasn't able to establish a connection. :-(
2 days after I arrived from Seattle I went to Cannes in France for the 3GSM Congress. 3GSM Congress of the GSM Association sounds like the wireless heaven but last year when I joined it, GPRS was in place also but GPRS Roaming for inbound roamers, at least not for German carriers. So my expectation for this year was mixed. When I was in Paris last year, GPRS worked on a length of some kilometers (only) and I expected that it might work nationwide this year and yes - it do! :-) When I left the aircraft my O2 SIM card logged into the French Orange network and indicated the "G" for available GPRS service. And this time, unlikely with my Vodafone D2 card in Copenhagen or my Vodafone Omnitel SIM in Seattle I was also able to establish a successful dial-up connection!
Is GPRS International Roaming able to fulfill in what promises at home?
Right in the auto bus from Nice airport to Cannes, I've tried to access my E-Mails cause I awaited some important E-Mails of the 3GSM Congress and it worked likecharm! GPRS worked as I used to use it at home. However, as a side effect of the 3GSM Congress, as closer I came to Cannes as slower was the connection which is something anyhow I can not blame anybody for. This is the limitation of GPRS and providing a wireless service in Cannes during the 3GSM Congress might be the hardest challenge for a GSM carrier because no where on the world you will see this high penetration of GSM terminals. ;-)
Overall I must admit that GPRS worked even more stable than GSM voice, even if it was slow. While I wasn't able to setup calls pretty often or callers reached my voice mailbox only I was always able - more or less - to log into GPRS and to run my IM client. Thanks to Messenger, I've reached a lot of people which I didn't reached by voice!
However, GPRS is still limited in upload speeds. While it's good enough on the downlink side it's still to slow for uploads. Mostly the terminals doesn't provides more then 1 or 2 channels for uploads which means a realistic maximum of around 26.8 Kb/s. However in conditions like the busy 3GSM congress this rate drops down dramatically and since GPRS isn't able to provide Quality of Service today, uploads might be even faster with a traditional CSD connection. And now imagine a picture upload of more than 500 KB through a 9.6 Kb/s connection. This is way to slow beside that nobody is able to pay this.
And the costs for this experience!? Well, that's a good question at all. While IM shouldn't be so expensive - even not in International Roaming - I have no clue what E-Mail and Web will costs me.
Right before I left my home to Seattle I called all carrier hotlines and asked if GRX (GPRS Roaming eXchange) is in place in the US and France. One carrier started to explain me which APN I have to use for WAP (in its own network) but didn't found any GRX information (ah, sorry Vodafone D2! If a customer asks for International Roaming for GPRS in the US he mostly don't need any explanations of the GPRS WAP service cause in most cases he knows this already. Otherwise he wouldn't be in need to ask for GRX - right?). The other operators hadn't (officially) any roaming agreements in place (like last year in summer when I was in Norway).
Wi-Fi is a great technology, not for home or office use only but also for covering public hotspots. However, what we really need here is roaming agreements between the different W-LAN carriers as well as between GSM and W-LAN carriers. In a perfect world I would be able to use the T-Mobile Wi-Fi network in the US with my German O2 subscription and billed after my use on my O2 invoice. This is and should be possible.
However, what I really want to see is a faster GRX rollout of the carriers. GPRS is commercially in place for more than 2 years now and the possibilities to use it abroad is still to limited.
I don't understand why this takes so long!? The reason every carrier might use to explain it are technical and billing issues but come on; how difficult could it be to route pure TCP/IP traffic? And also billing can't be that difficulty at all. There are still Clearing Houses available which an operator could use. All he has to do is importing these preformatted CDRs (Call Detail Records) and run it through the billing engine.
Overall wireless data roaming is still in such a deploying stage and immature that it isn't really useful for a business traveler and the business user is still the market which is addressed by carriers today. If a business traveler really needs access today he is on a much more saver side if he is carrying his good old analogue modem for fixed line access along.
Cheers ~ Arne