Remember the last time you found yourself staring at that little download bar and resigning yourself to waiting another 4 hours and 23 minutes for it to complete?
If you do, then you’ll know how important a decent (read: reliable, stable, fast) internet connection is to a location independent professional – or for that matter, anyone who travels regularly and needs to remain connected on the road.
A very common question I’m asked is this:
What’s the *best* way of connecting to the internet whilst I travel the world?
Unfortunately, there’s no universal *right* answer since every country is different and people’s definition of *best* also differs (cheapest, fastest, stablest etc.) but this guide is intended to give you a comprehensive overview of the options you may have available in many of the places you’ll visit and enable you to decide which ones might best suit your needs:
The following connectivity options are typically available in most countries you’ll visit – although there will of course be a few exceptions…
The ubiquitous internet cafe can be found in the strangest of places (on a beach in Belize, 7 years ago was perhaps my strangest internet cafe experience). These will vary from a single computer in the corner of a shop to rows and rows of gamers all engrossed in their respective cyber worlds. The best kind are those that have wi-fi which works in the cosy cafe just down the road. You can find a global directory of them here.
Another option for the location independent professional is a co-working space. Perhaps the most well known of these is a Jelly – a “casual working event…[which has] taken place in over a hundred cities where people have come together (in a person’s home, a coffee shop, or an office) to work for the day.” You can find the nearest Jelly to you on their wiki.
Of course, you don’t have to start or attend a Jelly on location – you can make the nearest coffee shop with free wi-fi your alternative office for the day or if you need a more formal work space, many cities have flexible office space to rent, sometimes by the hour, half day, day or week.
Cellphone data connection
This doesn’t provide the fastest of connections but is fine if you desperately need to log on but don’t have any other options available. You will of course need a phone which can act as a modem and a means of connecting it to your laptop (unless you access the internet on the phone itself) – usually via a cable or bluetooth.
3G USB Modems
A 3G modem is a very good option for connectivity on location. They usually take the form of a USB widget (or sometimes a PCMCIA card) which can be plugged into your laptop – you can usually get them from a local cellphone provider. Things to be aware of if you go with this option are:
- Data plans available – in order to connect, you will need to purchase a data plan. For most location independent people, a pay-as-you-go option is preferable instead of any sort of contract.
- The amount of data you need – some plans are advertised as “unlimited” but this is rarely the case. Confirm any limits on data (both download & upload limits) attached to your data plan – 3GB per month limit is common but this should be just about enough for an average-to-heavy internet user.
- The cost of the USB modem itself – for pay-as-you-go plans you will often have to pay for the modem (it won’t come included with a data plan). If you’ve already got a modem, it may work with a local SIM card so it’s worth checking before you pay out for another one.
- Even though they’re touted as 3G connections, it’s worth noting that you’ll only get 3G speeds in a 3G-enabled area. When you’re not, the modem will revert to whatever data connection it can find (which may be no better than the one you get on your cellphone).
Note: If you’re in the US, you’ve got an even better version of these which is Verizon’s Mi-Fi service, a device which creates a small personal wireless hotspot via 3G enabling you to connect a number of devices wirelessly to the connection.
Local wi-fi services
In some countries, you’ll find a local, city-wide wi-fi service that works in a similar way to the global ones below. You don’t need a 3G or other modem to find these, you can simply pick them up on your laptop, fire up your browser and be taken to the wi-fi service’s home page to buy a bundle of data. An example of this is the Skyrove service in Cape Town.
Global wi-fi services
There are a number of wi-fi networks which operate internationally – these include Boingo, iPass & T-mobile. Both of these operate either on a subscription basis or you pay a one-off fee for access to the network.
I know a few LIPs who’ve thought they may be able to use one of these as their primary and only means of staying connected whilst globetrotting only to be very disappointed by the experience (and this includes us when we first started) – here are a few things to note, if you plan to do this:
- If you subscribe to a T-mobile service in your home country, you will likely be charged roaming rates if you access the internet using this subscription overseas so check your plan & confirm international access & rates before assuming it’s included.
- On Boingo, we found many hotspots are designated “premium” locations which means you end up paying per-minute charges on top of your subscription.
Software & Online Services
VPN & Security tools - surfing on wi-fi connections, especially free, unsecured ones doesn’t come without its risks. Tools like StrongVPN & Hotspot Shield can minimise the risks enabling you to surf more anonymously & securely.
iPhone/Tri- or Quad-band Smartphone/Laptop/Netbook - your tool of choice to connect will largely determine the options you go for. It’s worth noting that many of the connectivity services above have mobile versions suitable only for a smartphone/mobile device.
Charger & Adapter - easy-to-forget, sometimes impossible to replace (try replacing a Mac power cable on a tiny Caribbean island), your device’s charger is obviously a must-have along with at least one global, surge-protecting adapter.
Cables & laptop lock - it’s useful to carry a long-ish ADSL/LAN & a normal dial-up cable with you and, if you plan to work from internet cafes/cafes/bars, a laptop lock so you don’t need to pack everything up whenever you want a bathroom break.
Local/Global SIM cards – we carry a number of SIM cards with us – usually local ones for the location we’re in so we can give it to friends we make & keep in touch more easily/cheaply whilst there. Plus we carry a SIM card/basic mobile phone service from ‘home’ with roaming enabled for times when we may not have a local SIM card available but still need to get in touch with somebody.
Travel wi-fi router - these devices enable you to take a cabled LAN connection and create a wireless network that enables multiple devices to share the one connection – great for expensive hotel connections.