Roaming still sucks

It’s 2012. You would think that by now, we’d have worked out effective solutions so that we could use our phones in more than one country. Of course, that’s not the case. Despite the more than 600,000 Canadian business trips to the US every year, sorting out a phone or data plan for the US is unwieldy. Prices are extortionate, and the average traveler isn’t savvy enough to swap SIM cards on their phone. And, in truth, they shouldn’t have to. Their phone should just work, wherever they take it. And that’s just going from one country to another.

I was reminded of this when, earlier this month, we traveled to Ireland. Rental car companies have begun renting out mobile Internet (or ‘mifi’) units along with their car. For a reasonable fee–I think we paid about €5 a day–we got mobile Internet access nearly anywhere in the country. You get a little mifi unit that comes with a wall and car charger. We have a similar unit for France, for when we’re traveling within the country or on the rare occasion when our local Internet access goes down.

By the way, it’s non-trivial to sign up with one of those units in the US, Canada or France. It’s not simply a question of buying it and then getting top-up cards. In the US and France when we’ve bought them, there was a fair amount of paperwork. And in Canada, where I had to buy one out of desperation earlier this year, there was no pay-as-you-go option available. I ended up signing up for a monthly plan with Bell, using it for three days, and then promptly canceling it.

Because we’re self-employed, a certain amount of any leisure travel is usually sacrificed to the Gods of Finding the Internet. Can we find a cafe with Internet access (particularly in the off season)? Does the hotel access actually work? A very first world problem, I know, but it’s a routine concern. Happily, this little mifi unit–we named it Dougal–spared us this inconvenience.

But what if we were just visiting Dublin for a week, and not renting a car? Or what if we were taking the train around Europe and traveling on foot? Where would we turn? Most travelers don’t absolutely need web access on the go, but increasingly they want it.

Thus far, the options look kind of dubious. There’s services like this one–that site feels a little sketchy.  They charge $15 per day, plus another $13 or so to ship the device to you. You get ‘unlimited’ data access, except that after you use up 500 MB, you’re downgraded from 3G to a 2G network. Their coverage in Europe looks decent, though interestingly you can’t use one of their devices in Canada. Trustive seems like a similar product. Worryingly, I couldn’t find reliable pricing information on their site. I wouldn’t trust either of these services without a recommendation from somebody I trust.

It seems like there’s a sizable opportunity for somebody with a recognizable brand to step in and own this space. In Europe, I could see somebody like Orange, who has presence in a lot of countries, offering a mifi solution to the city-bound tourist. Or maybe there are solutions on the horizon that I haven’t heard of?


  1. 1. roaming still sucks
    2. carriers still suck
    3. follow whatever Andy recommends for roaming iff you travel as much he does. otherwise just buy a local sim card in each country.

    happy new year!


  2. This topic definitely feels like a completely missed opportunity for carriers to get new, willing to pay a reasonable amount, foreign customers for part time access to their networks.

    The biggest problem (in North America at least but I suspect it’s similar in Europe) is that many US carriers won’t even let you use a Canadian address or credit card to pay for their services – their systems are simply not setup for anything other than a US address. Some will let you slug in your province and postal code in the 2nd address line and fake the rest of the info but many will not. Others work via topup cards so that causes the frustrating search for a card once you’ve landed in the foreign land vs just using your own credit card.

    I started using Roam Mobility earlier this year as they seemed to be better than the alternatives out there (much cheaper than carrier roaming options and much easier for Canadians to use while in the US) but it’s still not perfect – no rollover data, no Canadian usage, no online usage meter etc.

    All of this is a huge PITA for the average, non-geek traveller…it’s still an ongoing PITA for the geek traveller too.

  3. I spent about 7 weeks in UK, Europe, and Hong Kong in 2012.

    Last time I spent that much time overseas was in 2006, well before smart-phones were smart and 3G was sane.

    Having a smartphone, with access to maps and translation software got me out of more than a few jams. Yeah, I could’ve muddled through, but it turned potentially stressful situations into something we could laugh about.

    So – having Internet access on the go might not be a ‘must have’, but it’s fast becoming that.

    That said – my experience getting a Travel SIM was… not great. It worked fine in one country, but then went down for days on end. Eventually I gave up and bought SIMs as I went.

  4. Darren

    Please post your Oscar Picks for 2013. What film will win best Picture and what do you think was the best Picture of 2013?


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