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How to find cellular access when traveling (without international roaming)

Glenn Fleishman | July 8, 2015
A short trip from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., shows how thin our conduit is to connectivity—and how expensive an international pipe remains.

iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 users who just want mobile data (and could conceivably use Skype or other services for handling phone calls) can use an Apple SIM for roaming. On July 1, GigSky expanded a partnership with Apple that provides services in 90 countries. Its pricing varies from competitive with SIM providers to much better. A 250MB data plan (30-day expiration) costs $50 in Canada, or $0.20 a MB. In the UK, $50 buys 3GB ($0.02 a MB).

Find Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi wasn't scarce in Vancouver, but it's locked down to a remarkable degree. And Wi-Fi gets you access to data and iMessage, but not SMS/MMS messaging, which passes only over cellular networks.

Much of what I found were personal hotspots connected to national ISPs, or business networks that weren't open to customers. In some cases, such as at a Whole Foods location, I could bring up the portal page, but no matter how many times I clicked "I Agree," I was still out of luck while sipping my kale smoothie.

Had I opted for AT&T's deal, I would have Wi-Fi at all in British Columbia. AT&T's listing for hotspots across all of the Great North says, "Available in Winnipeg, and some smaller airports including Abbotsford International." Uh, OK. Other carriers have Wi-Fi partnerships, too, but they don't seem much better in Canada or elsewhere.

Finding fast-food and coffee chains and individuals shops is often a winning solution. But you can also tap into on-demand and subscription Wi-Fi. Skype can recognize when you connect to a supported hotspot--it claims it has deals with 2 million worldwide. You have to pre-purchase Skype credit, and it's charged at per-minute rates which seem to be about $0.03 to $0.06 (roughly $2 to $4 per hour).

Both Boingo Wireless and iPass offer extremely large international hotspot network access at fixed monthly prices. Boingo charges $5 a month for unlimited hotspot use in the Americas for up to two Wi-Fi devices at a time on the same plan. They have other regional plans, or $5 a month globally on up two mobile devices. A $39-a-month worldwide laptop and mobile plans includes 2,000 minutes of use a month. Some American Express cardholders even qualify for free service.

iPass's core market is corporations, but they offer an individual plan that's only sold as an annual subscription rate of $468 ($39 per month), but includes unlimited service at what it counts as 19 million hotspots.

Vancouver turns out to be an odd city: the above three services only include access at 13, 26, and 17 hotspots, respectively, across the entire town. Most other cities of the same scale I've checked in Canada and elsewhere have far more included hotspots.


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