Connecting to the Internet When There’s No Cafe in Sight—GPRS

As nu nomads, we are often looking for ways to connect to the internet to communicate with clients, collaborate with colleagues, or simply to get information. Usually this is as simple as finding a dwelling with internet capability or walking down to the local internet café. But for those of us who like the more remote parts of the globe or the quaint life of a smaller town, connecting to the internet can be a real challenge. However, there is still hope for the determined individual. It takes a basic knowledge of the options and some pre-planning on the home-front to be sure you have the right equipment.

The fundamental need is getting a signal that will transfer data. Many mobile phones have internet capability and options such as Blackberries include a keyboard for sending those short emails.
But if you have more extensive internet use requirements the micro-mini screens and keyboards become unbearable over time. You need to use your laptop. Hence, getting a signal to transfer data — for the laptop. You do this with a mobile phone and GPRS.

Living Life in 3G (or 2G or 4G)

Mobile phone/internet technology is evolving so rapidly that it would be nearly impossible to produce a piece that was completely up-to-date. The evolution of this technology is actually quite a bit ahead of what is readily available to the common user. So, while I write to you about GPRS, this is a technology that is already somewhat outdated even though it is still new enough not to have been adopted by many countries.

Mobile phones are categorized by generations. Older mobile phones that were made primarily for voice and sometimes photo transfer were considered to be “2nd Generation (2G)”. GPRS was a technology that evolved to allow 2G users to access the internet and also to increase interest among users in gaining more use of this option for the future. However, third generation mobile phones have now evolved, allowing for internet access at much higher speeds than their predecessors. In fact, 4G phones are already in existence. So is GPRS obsolete? No – not yet. At the moment, because of expense and licensing issues, many countries have not built 3G networks and for many that have begun to build, the coverage is still quite limited. Therefore, the international traveler should not expect to be able to access 3G features (internet) while away making GPRS a continued necessity.

What is GPRS ?

GPRS stands for General Packet Radio Service. GPRS service is billed on a “per kilobyte of data transferred” scale rather than per-second. This makes GPRS an affordable way to use the internet via your mobile phone. To access GPRS you will need a GPRS capable mobile phone and a GPRS enabled SIM card for the country in which you are traveling. (SIM cards are inserted into GSM phones to allow access to networks within various countries. These can be purchased in convenience stores, gas stations, etc. at your destination or before your departure at Telestial)

In a nutshell, when you use your mobile phone to speak, every minute that you are chatting is a minute that you are requiring space on your provider’s network system. Therefore, mobile phone charges are based on a per-second scale. However with “packet switching” that is used in GPRS, the network is only used for the few seconds that data is being transferred and in the meantime while you are working on your document or reading the web page that was just transferred to you, you are not using the network space.

What Kind of GPRS Phone?

If you read our article on Cell Phone Basics for Travelers, you will already know the importance of getting a GSM phone. This is no different when wanting GPRS capability. GSM systems are the only systems where GPRS is currently in use.

There are 3 classes of capability you may find when searching GSM/GPRS phones:

Class C phones cannot transfer voice (GSM) and data (GPRS) at the same time. With a class C device the user must use only one service at a time and switch the phone manually to change over.

Class B phones connect to both GSM and GPRS simultaneously but only one service at a time can be used. The phone automatically resets after the call or connection is finished and there is no need for the user to switch the phone manually.

Class A phones can use both GSM and GPRS simultaneously allowing the user to speak and transfer data all at the same time.

Most phones on the market right now are Class B phones.

And Now for Service

In addition to having a GPRS capable phone you will need to find a phone service provider or country SIM card that supports GPRS service. Read carefully when choosing your service or SIM card about whether GPRS is supported and what rates are charged. Here are some sample results I found through Telestial:

Spain Vodafone SIM Card – 2 Euros per megabyte ($2.80 US)
Thailand Happy SIM Card – .10 Bhat per kilobyte ($.003 US)
Jordan Cardcom SIM Card – GPRS not available
Canada Rogers SIM Card – GPRS not available but email is retrievable
France Orange SIM Card – GPRS not available
Don’t assume that GPRS will always be readily available anywhere you go. You may expect most extensive GPRS coverage in Asia and the U.S. but you may not find it in every European country. Do your homework before you leave home!

Making it Work

So you have your GPRS enabled phone and a GPRS enabled SIM card. The next step will be to learn how to use the service. There are 3 methods for connecting your mobile phone to your laptop.

  1. Data-cable – yes, the good old fashioned wire method. This is reliable and not too inconvenient when traveling.
  2. Infrared – requires the alignment of the IR port on the laptop with the IR port on the phone. However, if you are on a jostling train or in a limited space this might be difficult. For instance, some laptops have their IR port in front of the keyboard making typing impractical. You also need a phone that includes IR connecting.
  3. Bluetooth – this can be an ideal option as it allows connection just through proximity but will require configuration of a Bluetooth enabled phone and laptop with Bluetooth or Bluetooth card. In addition, this option may slow your connection and run your phone battery down fast.

Once the phone and laptop are communicating, you will need to access the GPRS network. Accessing GPRS networks usually involves dialing in access codes and passwords. These codes and passwords will vary depending on your service provider and country in which you are traveling. Instructions for accessing the network should be provided by this service.

And, voila! You’re in business, nomad.