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THOUGHT: W-LAN vs. GPRS - which one is my personal favorite while traveling?
Posted by PPCW.Net Editori - on Monday, 09.02.04 - 10:43:33 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 7102x
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Contributed by Dr. Wolfgang Irber, PPCW.Net Reader and Business Professional

My job requires lots of traveling, and with W-LAN being omnipresent in the news I also expected to find W-LAN hotspots reflecting the media presence: easily accessible and everywhere available at low cost. Equipped with notebook and W-LAN-PCMCIA card, and more recently with a Pocket PC (XDA II) with W-LAN-SD card, I was ambitious to find high-speed wireless Internet access wherever I went. I further was interested in the question if W-LAN is already becoming a serious threat to GPRS, the current prevailing wireless Internet access technology in Europe. However, after a couple of months, my readiness to use W-LAN while traveling significantly declined.

First reason: the prizing
The major reason for me to put W-LAN behind GPRS while traveling is the current prizing schema. Just in case I found a hotspot: try to find out about the prizing! It is one of the well hidden secrets on the portal sites. I always got the impression the operators are ashamed of their prizes. On average, half an hour of wireless Internet access costs about 5 Euro. In my naivety, I initially thought I could use up the offered time units minute by minute, log in and out when I need it. But in all cases I have seen so far, when buying, e.g., 30 minutes of W-LAN time, once the unit is activated, the time runs out; a rather costly option for short email checks. But don't expect this fact to be pointed out on the websites. It's usually a footnote... if at all.

With GPRS, the five Euro per half an hour W-LAN time means about 3-4 MB of GPRS data traffic in my home country: enough to check the emails for a few days; without attachments of course! Even when roaming, I still get roughly 0,5-1 MB for five Euro and do not need to struggle with any access "barriers" such as prepaid cards or access codes etc. For instance, this article was sent from Prague via GPRS, had 7 KB and did cost about 0,20 Euro to send! 

Second reason: the access management
Even worse is the situation when traveling outside from my home country. Being at home, I easily can get a login password via SMS from my local operator who then charges me via my phone bill. Outside of Germany, I usually need to purchase a prepaid card with time units. But even buying is often extremely difficult. Staff at the selling points rarely knows what I am talking about, not to mention that no technical help is provided anyway. But much worse... the short time unit cards are usually gone: honestly, who wants to buy 24 hours of access time for a 5-minute email check, even if there are some more checks throughout the day? That's a very expensive email check!

I have to admit that there is some improvement in the access management with providers going to offer Europe-wide accounts, but it's still the pricing that matters, as I have to pay for myself. It appears to me that the wireless freedom is only targeting wealthy business traveler! But how many managers are transferring last minute PowerPoint files or are constantly sending bulky email attachments? Can those people really create the expected return of investment?

Third reason: the availability
Availability is another annoying point: when I urgently need wireless Internet access while on the go, I am sure I won't find an access point at all. Of course, there are lots of hot-spot finder in the Internet, but that's exactly the point: how to find the hot spot without Internet access? The often mentioned free access points in the public are rarer than expected; and using a unprotected private access point was never an option for me. Hence, only occasionally I was able to get connected for free sitting in a cafe.

Fourth reason: the battery drain
In case you know when and where you can recharge your device, the power drain through W-LAN usage is not a problem. But when traveling, not knowing how many hours are still ahead before reaching the next socket with time for a recharge, the power drain is still an issue. If you don't watch your battery status, the wireless mobility is very rapidly turning into a powerless mobility. I was very unpleasantly surprised when I noticed how much power W-LAN requires compared to GPRS.

Final conclusion

Maybe, I just had bad luck during the last months, or I am too stupid to find the right spots. But after my first enthusiasm was gone, I decided not to rely on W-LAN anymore as a first option, and not to struggle with all the access troubles as described above. If W-LAN is available and the prizing is right, OK, I give it a try and enjoy the speed, but generally GPRS is my first choice for sending and receiving emails. Wherever I go in Europe in these days, there is GPRS coverage, easily accessible, reliable and with transparent prizing.

When traveling, my requirement is connectivity when I want and not when the access point allows it. That's wireless freedom as I understand it. In my case connectivity comes first, than bandwidth. This of course, is my very personal and subjective conclusion from my recent travels in Europe. The situation may change in the near future and render this observation obsolete, but despite the media presence, my experience is that the W-LAN coverage is still in its very early beginnings. As long as W-LAN operators are not reaching a general roaming agreement with easy access and fair prizing, I cannot see W-LAN in becoming the traveler's first choice.

But back to my initial question: is W-LAN threatening the GPRS-UMTS business? In the current stage I would say not at all. There is one major point that became neglected in all the discussions: wireless access does not automatically mean mobility. But things may change anytime soon. I'll keep watching.

Cheers ~ Wolfgang