Keeping a laptop, notebook or netbook connected to the internet on a long-distance overland journey doesn’t come out of the box. However several technological changes since 2007 made it easier than ever before. It marks the start of even bigger changes for those who travel in the years to come.
The 2G and 3G Internet revolution for laptop travelers
Wireless technology has dramatically increased Internet access for travellers over the past 5 years starting in 2005 / 2006. It’s especially true for Middle-Eastern and Asian countries where cell phone networks have expanded rapidly. This development driven by several recent trends marks the end of time-consuming logistics to find a local internet café.
In the past years many cell phone networks have been upgraded with 2G and/or 3G services allowing data communication (ie: internet) and phone calls at the same time. So whenever a cellphone is within reach of a wireless cellular signal, there's the possibility to connect to the internet too.
More frequent internet access at random locations leads to better decisions on how and where the journey goes.
Internet access with Google Earth at random locations can reveal a wealth of information around you.
A simple example is Google Earth – It can reveal a wealth of information from the area around you. In many occasions during this 4+ year and ongoing overland journey information from Google Earth had an instant effect on the activities in the days after. Specially Google Earth locations mapped by locals made it possible to visit unique places of which many would remain unseen without.
With 2G / 3G wireless technology in place connecting to the Internet is about access to affordable flat-fee prepaid Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) internet plans. This because cross-border data roaming with a postpaid internet plan still remain horribly expensive. Ironically, the speed of 3G internet can have a brutal effect on postpaid costs when used cross-border. It revives the early 90's bill-shock era where the cost of international cellular phone calls in roaming mode caused quite a bit of drama for many.
So instead of finding an Internet Café, it’s now about finding a shop to buy a prepaid / PAYG SIM card. Next is crossing language and cultural barriers by working helpdesks and sales attendees to make the prepaid SIM card work.
PAYG / prepaid scratchcards to keep connected to the internet
Managing PAYG / prepaid and 3G bandwidth balance becomes the new sport. The small print in Pay-As-You-Go prepaid contract can make a prepaid balance evaporate in no-time – specially at 3G speeds.
Undoubtedly, future cross-border data roaming rates will drop dramatically. For example the European Union already set a maximum rate for the costs of 1Mb of data in roaming mode. However, it seems the EU committee that drafted the proposal forgot about how fast 3G internet can be. Till that date prepaid PAYG simcards are the only affordable solution for 2G and 3G internet access.
WIFI Internet – connecting to WIFI internet hotspots
Also WIFI technology has seen quite a change. The amount of WIFI hotspots have increased immensely, specially in urban areas. With better WiFi hardware the range of a short range WIFI network has increased making it possible to connect over a larger distance. Also speed has gone up while at the same time encryption technologies improved. For those who travel it increased the chance of finding a WIFI hotspot when more speed is required than a 2G or 3G connection can deliver.
Here's an overview of the most common hurdles of connecting to broadband internet through WIFI hotspots.
Although many WIFI hotspots are now encrypted, many public places (Café’s, restaurants, library) offer free high speed internet access – or just by buying a coffee.
3G and emerging 4G technologies
Already new wireless technologies are starting to emerge with 4G networking like WiMAX. It’s a great broadband solution for the expensive “last mile” to connect homes to a wired infrastructure. This is especially true in 2nd and 3rd world countries where the expansion of wired telephony has stopped drop dead by raging cell phone technology. For instance Pakistan is now the leading 4G WiMAX implementer providing access to high speed mobile internet in urban regions. Access comes through simple WIMAX USB sticks or WIMAX PCMCIA / ExpressCards. Although WiMAX is meant for residential broadband internet, ad-hoc access through PAYG / prepaid contracts can become reality.
Pakistan - the worlds leading WiMAX implementer. This is the street scenery in Quetta.
Also the cellular industry has launched their own 4G initiative called LTE. This while 3G is still being improved to reach higher speeds. Most likely technologies like WiMAX and LTE are going to exist next to each other.
Different 3G standards like HSPA and EVDO are being integrated into 1 chip solutions like the GOBI modem from Qualcomm. For those who travel frequently between the US and Europe it's a step towards a smoother 3G experience.
Laptop Internet hurdles
Technological hurdles to connect a laptop, notebook or netbook to cellular 2G / 3G internet still exists – but better trained helpdesks and sales personnel manage to connect more people than ever before. Since 2009 the 2G / 3G USB stick has become immensely popular and tries to make internet connections plug and play.
The filtering message from Etisalat in the UAE - worlds heaviest internet filter
However the information that comes with being connected to the Internet isn’t always appreciated either. Specially in Middle-Eastern countries, filtering the internet has become a new and expanding government activity. Countries like Iran, Oman but also the UAE have already invested heavily in filtering technology. At the same time anti-filtering technology also emerged making it a very profitable business.
There are several recent trends that brings cellular internet within the reach for those who travel
- Expansion of mobile cell phone networks with 2G / 2,5G (GSM) and 3G (UMTS) technology. In Asia and the Middle-East upgrades to 2,5G (EDGE) is becoming the norm.
- Marketing of prepaid / PAYG contracts for locals as well as foreigners.
- Marketing of MMS and/ or Internet by cell phones companies, thus spreading the word and experience among end-users.
- Since 2008 the average new cell phone has a 3G (UMTS) modem inside opening the possibility for high speed 3G internet on a laptop, notebook or netbook. This is especially true in the bigger cities and western regions.
Although the speed of 2G and 3G networks is slow compared to matured wired technology like DSL or Cable, mobility largely compensates the drop in speed.