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Tales of SIM

I have been thinking for some time about writing about our connectivity sagas. “Tales of sim” perhaps. The issue has been how to write through the massive frustration in an engaging and humorous way. After all no one really wants tales of woe.

So I will start with today’s adventure and see if I can work backwards through our 30+ sim cards.

There is a view that the European Union is becoming more homogeneous. It is not true. The Euro is great for the traveler not so great for balancing economies. As a boater you soon learn that every country has it own propane system from distribution to fittings. This it turns out is easy to deal with compared to mobile internet coverage.

You remember the volcano in Iceland bringing air travel to a halt. Well all those families stuck in airports set their kids up with movies to watch only to return to roaming bills in the multi thousands of Pounds, Euros, or whatever. Horrendous for the hapless travelers and not good public relations for the companies. The EU parliament responded with a law now being replicated in other countries that forbade roaming charges of more than €60/month without express permission from the user. i.e. a pop up screen informs you of what you are doing and you have to click agree before continuing. Of course in Holland the pop up is in Dutch!
So roaming is not an option. There are attempts to make it useable by one or two companies that have divisions in several countries but it is still potentially very expensive as the unwary travelers have discovered.

Most local citizens will have contracts that have minimum periods and require a local address and bank account. These are the least expensive and most useful plans but of course travelers do not have local bank accounts and addresses. We have bank accounts in Europe, which use all the same IBAN banking protocols as Holland, but are not acceptable.

So for the traveler who wants to be connected this leaves PAYG (Pay as you go). PAYG sims are still very expensive although not as much as roaming and have quite limited service. I first discovered some of the limitations on arriving in Europe with my unlocked (at a cost of $50 at FIDO) Iphone. PAYG SIM cards come in two flavours, mobile phone SIM cards with a small (100Mb) data component for texting etc. and a data only SIM card for dongles, mobile hot spots and Ipads. Neither of these is suitable for an Iphone which wants a phone SIM card with a high data allowance. I offered to pay more for a couple of Gigabytes of data but they were not available. Once the 100Mb has run out it is gone until the next month. The only useful Iphone cards were all on contracts.

So to this morning’s adventure with KPN in Holland. Just a note here if you are in Holland, KPN is part of the old post office which is now privatized and huge and useless. I had picked up a data only SIM card for my Ipad –side story- I fell off the boat that first year and drowned my Iphone. Realizing that the Iphone was not useful, I bought an Ipad so I could use the ‘data only’ cards of reasonable size (2Gb) and a small cheap phone with a phone card and an independent camera.

Back to my ‘data only’ SIM card. It had burned through 2Gb and €20 in too short a time and so I dropped in to the store to complain and buy more Gbs.

How to add more more gigabytes to a SIM card; KPN is only set up to accept payment by credit card online, but a Canadian credit card doesn’t work it has to be a Dutch credit card which requires an address and a bank account to get. No problem? Or so I thought until I dropped into the store, explain the situation and asked them to phone their tech service people, who when faced with the impossibility of how I might add data to my SIM card allowed me to buy the extra data in the store and pay cash for it. I did it this a couple of weeks ago (the data cards burned up too fast). But now KPN will no longer allow the store to add data to my card and I can ONLY buy more data through the use of a Dutch credit card online. Effectively my SIM card is now useless. As I stood in the KPN store incredulously I had to admit that the sales person who had helped me was as flummoxed as I. I thanked him for his efforts, made a mental note to avoid KPN forever and moved of down the street to T-Mobile.

The average shopping district is now dominated by cell phone stores. In Holland it is KPN, T-Mobile, Vodaphone, HI (off shoot of KPN), 02, Bel, Lycaphone, Lebara, The Phone House, and several others. T-Mobile and I had already spent an hour on phone one morning trying to get to the bottom of why another one of our SIM cards was not happy working with my MacBook Pro but worked in Barbara’s MacBook Air.
We have an average of 4 SIM cards at any one time. Two cell phones, the Ipad and a dongle (aka rocket stick) for the computers. Currently our dongle SIM card is T-Mobile. Potentially this one is a real winner as we have a contract on it with the help of a Dutch friend. T-Mobile just brought out a contract that can be cancelled after three months. Apparently it is directed at first time users whom they are pretty sure will become addicted like the rest of us and keep the contract. (“He gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrows clientel.” Words from a song by Professor Tom Lehrer, ‘The Old Dope Peddler’ circa 1952).

However, in our case being able to cancel means that we can have a three month contract with good service and pricing even if we only used it for one month we would be way ahead of the game.

Brilliant except that it will not work with my computer.

Barbara’s MacBook Air is working, so she has great internet access. So far no-one including myself has been able to figure out why it will not work on my computer. So I resorted to the Ipad and KPN and now I was in the store to get a PAYG SIM card for the Ipad from T-Mobile . We think there may be an incompatibility with Apple Snow Leopard operating system. We ran into this problem before with O2 in Germany. They had a piece of software which solved the problem mmmmm – T-Mobile in Holland had no such remedy).

All of this is happening in this year. There are three years of struggle to recount.

Last year I threatened to sleep on the floor of a KPN store until they restored the gigabyte that they had stolen from me. It was only when the sales clerk pleaded with me that his girlfriend had been waiting in the car for an hour that I relented. Barbara has now named me – ‘Martin – WIFI hunter’!

So there you have a taste. Most travelers just use WIFI in restaurants and bars. The big companies are responding to this by trying to get control of WIFI as well. They set up WIFI hotspots in all the main traveler areas like railway stations and tourist spots and you buy a monthly subscription of about €45. I did this on our first year, bought a WIFI subscription to KPN as they were in a lot of marinas. After we left Dordrecht I never saw another KPN WIFI hotspot so that was a lesson. Also we are often very rural with no WIFI to be found anyway so 3G it is.

I will give you one more short story. In France we had a great mobile hotspot from Orange into which you insert your data only SIM card and it gives out a WIFI signal to all the computers on the boat. It worked well. It was expensive as we had to use PAYG SIM cards. (probably €100 a month). Then Orange (another cell phone company in Europe) decided to have a fight with Skype (this appeared to have to do with the fact that they also sold mobile phones) and throttled the bandwidth every time it recognized Skype. I was unsure whether my observations were correct so I searched a bit and sure enough came up with a bunch of online forums where travelers and ex-pats raged against Orange for this behaviour.

Barbara is thinking about distilling her blog down to a bit of a guidebook for water travelers with chapters on various aspects of our adventure. She asked me to do one on connectivity. So I suggested a title for the chapter might be ‘Barbara’s dongle’ or Barbara’s rocket stick’.

2 comments on “Tales of SIM

  1. We had a Lebara pay as go account on a IPhone we brought with us when traveling in France in June and it worked great. I had a 1 hour conference call and the party in Canada called me and the cost was €1.00 euro!

    • Thanks Ron. It is true that in some countries if you receive a call it is free or very cheap whereas if you initiate the call you pay full whack. Lebara is one of the new entries and has some good ideas. So I guess you used it for phone and email mostly. How big was the data component? Last time we were in France we could only get 100Mb on a phone sim which is why we switched to data only sims.

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