Accessing the Internet Via Cell Phone (Written 10/08; revised 4/09)
2 Ways of Connecting
Accessing the internet via cell phone is relatively easy in Europe; extending the conversation to one's laptop is more difficult.
The Cell Phone
In Europe, to connect to the internet with a cell phone you need a phone that is at a minimum GSM compatible on bands 900 and 1800 MHz. Additional bands are necessary for high speed connections. Bill bought a Motorola phone over E-Bay early in 2008 for about $170. This phone was special in that it was designed for use in Germany and so it had the proper bands needed to connect to European networks, including the new high-speed networks up to 3.6 Mb/sec. (There is more information about cell phone selection and service options in the "Cell Phones in Europe" file.)
There are various speeds of connection to the internet available in Europe. The slowest is GPRS and is available everywhere. It is slow (40Kb/sec) and is really only useful for email retrieval. EDGE is an expansion of GPRS to a higher speed (about 200Kb/sec), is acceptable for limited internet surfing, and is available nearly everywhere in Europe. UMTS is slightly faster still, (about 300Kb/sec) The new higher speed HSDPA is available in 1.8, 3.6, and 7.2 Mb/sec versions, depending on the country you're visiting and the location within that country.
Be very careful when buying your phone if you intend to use a speed higher than EDGE because while GPRS and EDGE operate on the same bands as voice calling in both the US and Europe, UMTS and HSDPA work on non voice bands in Europe and on voice bands in the US. So for example, if you buy a quad band phone (appropriate for use on all voice bands in Europe and the US) that has HSDPA, and is designed for sale in the US, the voice functions will work in Europe and the US but the HSDPA internet connection will only work in the US.
Choosing your phone by model should be a simple solution but it doesn't work. The same model name will be used on phones for both the US and European markets but the bands accessible will be different for the 2 markets. So if you want UMTS or HSDPA to use in Europe, then you need a phone designed to be sold in Europe. That being said, be aware that your European HSDPA phone won't be able to connect to the newest HSDPA networks in the US. There are a couple of specific phones that get around this problem (eg. Palm Treo 750 - no longer available from manufacture as of April '09) but they are expensive and may have other limitations you don't want to accept.
To keep your fees to a minimum, you need to buy a SIM card or SIM Data card for your phone in each country in which you are accessing the internet. Sometimes a single SIM card will also allow you to make phone calls through the same carrier for an additional small fee.
Linking to Your Computer
The hardware is the easy part in linking your cell phone to the computer as all you need is a USB cable compatible with your phone. These are usually very easy to obtain from a phone shop or computer hardware store. The more difficult issue is getting the software all talking to each other and the obstacles vary by country.
Do be aware however that almost every cell phone service provider's first solution will be for you to buy their modem and hardware, usually for 75-150€. We've never found it to be necessary--instead we call upon another provider.
Tunisia (March 2008)
Bill bought a Tunisiana SIM card for his European-marketed Motorola cell phone. Getting the cell phone working was straightforward and only required inserting the chip into the phone. In order to connect to the internet, he had to buy a data supplement for about $33. (www.tunisiana.com).
Getting the laptop to communicate with the internet required hours of aggravating trial and error. Here are the steps to take to speed the process.
First, plan on visiting the Tunisiana Customer Service Center in Tunis (2nd floor of the small mall on the SE corner of the traffic circle at Ave de Paris & Ave du Ghana) where a few of the staff members speak English and even fewer really know how to connect the laptop to their internet service via phone. They have a printed flow sheet entitled "Guide d'utilisation, PC-Telephone" in French that you can inquire about if they draw a blank. The information isn't entirely complete, but it is a starting point.
Give the Tunisiana rep your Tunisian phone number and ask him or her to check your account to make sure the settings are correct, that all is in order for this task. From Tunisiana, you will need the dialup phone number and the AP Number. There are then two ways to proceed. You can attempt to configure your cell phone's connection software (in our case Motorola phone tools) to connect your phone to the the internet, or you can follow the instructions in the "Guide d'utilisation, PC-Telephone" to have your operating system do the connecting. Be aware that this guide though, is written for Windows XP and not Vista, which, in addition to being in French, can make this a daunting task. Whenever Bill tries to recreate the configuration process, he goes catatonic, so no details are available about how he finally succeeded.
Sometimes Bill sets up outdoors (in the cold) to get a good signal.
Italy (October 2008)
In the fall of 2007 Bill researched internet via cell phone options in Italy and selected service with Vodafone for his initial experience. After scrutinizing the website information of TIM, Vodafone, and Wind, he selected TIM for 2008 but with only a slight preference over Vodafone. The TIM website was easier for the beginning Italian speaker to use and tipped the balance. His experience at the TIM customer service office in Palermo on via Della Liberta immediately made him a loyal TIM customer as he was extremely impressed with their knowledge, ability, and professionalism.
To get set-up with TIM in Italy you'll need to take your phone, laptop, phone-laptop cable, passport, credit card or 30-50€ in cash, and a book. The book is for the hour or so you'll spend waiting in line--an obligatory step in Italian mobile phone shops. But, at least in Palermo, Bill went out the door with the system up and running. His time investment was entirely passive, just waiting, with no hair-tearing of the do-it-yourselfer as was required in Tunisia. And unlike in Tunisia, the Palermitan was at ease with Microsoft's Vista software and didn't miss a beat in using it. He filled in the 2 or 3 codes and it was running.
Do press the TIM rep for the numbers you need to call via your cell phone to check the time and money remaining on your account. There is an English option, so ask how to access that unless your comfortable with your spoken Italian. It is important not to let the time or money on your account run out and you'll need to resupply it with money before that happens to retain it.
Back at the room, Bill was disappointed not to be able to
make the connection work, but shutting the phone and laptop off and brining it
all up anew did the trick. When he finally did connect, he was stymied by the request for a username and
password. None is needed however, so just pressing "enter" bypassed the
In 2009, TIM continued to be Bill's service provider of choice for the internet. This time around TIM was a little more expensive than the competitors but their support for English speakers bought his loyalty. He could sign-up for the internet in English over the phone; use the recharge cards for more minutes without assistance; and check his account balances in English. In addition, their Italian-only website was easier to use than Vodafone's, the other service he has used for the internet.
Montenegro (April 2009)
The cell phone and internet worlds are changing rapidly and nothing said it more clearly than Bill's experience in Montenegro. Intent on connecting our laptop to the internet via his Motorola cell phone, he went into the Promonte shop after being deflected by the T-Mobile rep in the small town of Kotor. The Promonte rep had only a handful of English words, but "Data SIM card" was among them. Those 3 words from the clerk and enough additional ones to equate gigabytes with Euro's and Bill was out the door with a running chance at connecting for 5€. In minutes he was on the internet, and by the next day he'd used up his bytes. Another visit to the Promonte store for the purchase of the 25€ option, and he was humming along online on his 2 gigabytes for a month.
France (June 2009)
Prices for internet access via cell phone were coming down in France but the required purchase of a 69€ modem (about $100) and 3€/hour for internet service was still too high for us so we did without once again.