A while back, I had a chance to go to MWC (news and analysis) in Barcelona, Spain and like many of you who travel internationally, I was concerned about my cellular bill as I enjoy the relative generosity of multigigabyte 4G data plans in the US. In Europe however the costs can grow quickly. When headed overseas, Verizon charges $25 per 100 MB of data. As many US devices are locked, it becomes a hassle to bypass such restrictions with multiple devices and a bevy of SIM cards. Sure, Sprint says they will sell unlocked devices in Q1 of next year but not everyone will be a Sprint customer and even if you are, you most likely aren’t going to upgrade your phone immediately to take advantage of this new-found flexibility from the carrier. Of course the option to bring your own unlocked device to a carrier has been a recent US choice but it isn’t cheap – and works only if you have the cash upfront to make this happen.
Let’s say you have a 100-person workforce going to Europe for a meeting, upgrading to 100 models of the unlocked iPhone 5s with 64 GB each would set you back $84,900 which could alternatively buy you a new corporate Tesla Model S with enough left over to buy a slightly used Fiat 500 (tax, title, disposition fees etc. not included).
Thankfully, on my trip I was fortunate enough to have services provided to me by three companies which made the connectivity on my journey cost-effective and hassle-free.
The first one is a service I never tried before – GigSky (coverage from October and November of 2013). They sent me a SIM card for my iPad as well as a MiFi for my other devices. They both worked amazingly well. In many ways my connectivity was better at MWC than in the US as I was connected more there than I am here thanks to the connectivity challenges in Fairfield County, CT. The only problem I had was with the iPad which broke just before my trip forcing me to get a new one. I decided to get an iPad Air to replace the iPad 4 and this new tablet uses a Nano-SIM card which meant I had to cut the SIM to fit.
Other than that one small issue, everything was smooth. I rarely used the iPad SIM but in my tests both it and the MiFi worked amazingly well.
My trip consisted of lots of time in Barcelona as well as driving through Costa Brava to the cities of Palamos, Girona, Pals, Peratallada and others which had ruins worth checking out. I had only 3G coverage but is was speedy enough to not be an issue. It certainly wasn't like the 3G coverage I experienced last year in Riviera Maya, Mexico which was slow enough to make you consider sending written letters with a quill pen instead of email.
I also had a ZTE MiFi unit from XCom Global (see review from last year) which turned out to be amazingly light and durable. I know this because it fell off the top part of a treadmill at 13.5 KPH onto the belt which launched it into a metal wall. Yes, it still worked fine after the incident. XCOM sent me an extra battery as well as a carrying case/pouch which both came in handy.
At MWC there was ubiquitous WiFi but it didn’t work too well so having the connectivity options provided by XCom and GigSky meant I was always in touch. I was posting blog entries on the fly and regardless of all the other people at the convention center with me; I didn’t have a single problem.
Occasionally I had to reset the MiFi Units – something I am used to doing with all of these products.
While both of these devices worked great, I enjoy using Boingo to take the stress of 4G networks and minimize battery use whenever possible. Boingo/GoGo helped me out on my flight as well as in the airport and in random parts of Spain.
The takeaway from my trip is that having an external MiFi unit when you have a locked phone is an amazingly cost-effective alternative. I have a voicemail-transcription service meaning I get an email when I get a phone message. In addition, my phone did ring so I could take calls as I normally would. Typically when I got a call or message I just called back using VoIP instead of racking up a $0.99/minute bill. In every case, the MiFi units worked well – except when deep in an area with ruins consisting of rocks which were a foot or more in thickness (see below). It is worth pointing out that the iPhone local carrier partner worked no better in such instances.
I recommend all of these services with no reservations – if you do the calculations, an average to moderate data or voice user will save tons of money with all of them. Some carriers like T-Mobile have gotten aggressive at cutting the additional expense you pay while roaming but most people of course don’t use the carrier in the first place making such an offer of limited value.
Until something changes, be sure to consider accounts from Boingo, XCom Global and GigSky as they can save you money and offer great service in the all the areas where I used them.