Wireless Internet Access: Consumer Theory and Reality

Due to my recent reports on high speed wireless Internet access via prepaid SIMs in Italy (like here, here and here) I recently got an eMail from somebody who will go there for some time asking for my advice. At first, I wanted to write a short and crisp reply saying “no problem”. Once I started typing, however, I realized there are actually more than just a few things to consider. So here’s my response:


The Theory

You know I’d really like to give you the following answer: Yes, no problem, go ahead, buy the HSDPA card, go to Rome, pick up a prepaid SIM and you are all set. Or even better, just take your notebook to Rome, visit a TIM shop and they’ll sell you a prepaid SIM, a data card for a reasonable price, and install it on your notebook while you are in the shop. Reality, however, is a bit more complex. Not because it has to be but because of a less than ideal way of how things are handled by the parties involved.

The Reality

Buying a Mobile Phone or PC Card

Buying an HSDPA Express card in the US and bringing it to Italy should work. Before you buy however, make sure of two things: For once, the card must not be locked to a specific network it must be open to all. Therefore, buying an HSDPA card from a network operator will not work as they are usually locked. […] Second, you should make sure the card supports the European UMTS band, which is 2100 MHz. The US uses different frequency bands so if the card is limited to them it won’t work in Europe. Third, you should also make sure you can get software updates via the web page of the manufacturer. It’s not uncommon that cards get pushed out the door with an unstable software version at the beginning so being able to update it is important.

Getting a SIM and Activating Mobile Internet Access

So let’s say you have a card and you’ve arrived in Italy. TIM definitely has the best HSDPA network for your purpose so I advise you to go for one of their prepaid SIM cards. Try to find a TIM shop with a helpful and friendly shop assistant and buy a prepaid SIM. Once you’ve got it, put it into a normal GSM phone and make a phone call which gets connected. This way the card is activated and only after that is it possible to put some more money on the account in order to enable the data option. Note: Just calling another party which does not pick up does not work, the call needs to be connected. Don’t ask me why. To top up, buy a top up card and be prepared to read the Italian instructions. In the TIM network you can top up your prepaid SIM by buying a scratch card and sending the secret digits via SMS to the network. Some shops also offer top ups by giving them the telephone number of the line. Works nice as well. Once there is enough money on the prepaid SIM you can activate the data offer. I think the offer is called WEB FACILE 500 MB so ask the shop attendant in the TIM store how to activate this option. Afterwards, happy surfing.

House Keeping

I don’t think TIM warns you when you are close to having used up the 500 MB or when the 4 weeks for which it is valid expire. God only knows why. So you have to check every now and then how much is left on your card by calling the TIM voice server and go to menu 3. If you are close to your limit, put some more money on the SIM card and extend the option. I am not sure how to do this as I tried as described and it didn’t work. An Italian friend of mine then called the TIM hotline and after 20 minutes of heated discussion in Italian they did it manually.

Another option is to buy a prepaid SIM card of WIND. They also seem to have an HSDPA network in Rome now. Their network performance is not as good as TIM’s when I was there but it probably also will do the job. However, you’ll get more bits for your buck  🙂  Their offer is called WIND MEGA NO LIMIT 15000.

In Building Coverage

As long as you have a window in the room and are not underground it should be all right. It’s still a bit of a gamble but you should be fine, Rome is well covered.

Misc Stuff

Other options: In case you can’t find an unlocked HSDPA card to buy in the US you can buy an HSDPA capable card or phone in Italy. If you buy a card it’s probably locked to the operator. USB adapters are another interesting alternative because you can place them in a good spot without moving the notebook if coverage is less than ideal. Phones can be bought unlocked, you might have seen that I choose to do this when I was there and bought a Motorola V3xx with a branding from TIM. As it turned out it worked fine in all networks except for TIM’s. Again, completely beyond me.

So I hope I haven’t discouraged you from going ahead with your plan. It can be done and if you have an Italian friend who knows a thing or two about computers and maybe also something about how to connect wirelessly to the Internet you should get it working without too much trouble.

Looking at it from the bright side I think one could say that there is lots of room for improvement. All it takes is the will and a bit of work from network operators…

Hope this helps,

So to me, how things could be (an not unrealistically so) sounds a lot nicer than how things actually are. As I said, there’s a lot of room for improvement…

One thought on “Wireless Internet Access: Consumer Theory and Reality”

  1. Well I guess this is more of a service delivery issue than a technical one. If you ever investigate the broadband Internet access in Greece, you will conclude that “heated discussions” are the norm. ADSL is a fine tech, but the way the deliver it is extremely bad in most cases.

    Thanks a lot for the very nice articles and info in your blog.

    –A reader from Greece

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