I had an interesting surprise when I passed through Paris airport recently. Orange (France Telecom) has put a vending machine in the airport hall where people can buy prepaid SIM cards with different kind of phones and also prepaid 3G Internet access together with a 3G stick.
The Internet offer with the 3G stick (locked to the network operator I suppose) is around 30 Euros. Oddly enough from an outsiders view, usage is paid by time and not by volume. 2h are included in the starter pack.
Unfortunately, prices for further online time are very unattractive. 3 euros buy 20 minute of online access, an hour costs 8 euros and 6 hours cost 25 euros. Online activities can be interrupted and all but the smallest pass are valid for using during a timeframe of one month. Compare that to the 1GB for 15 euros offer which is valid for a year from A1 in Austria. Quite a difference.
Switzerland is the latest country for which I have bought a local SIM card for prepaid 3G Internet access while traveling there. Getting the SIM was quick and I was online in less than 5 minutes.
Zurich airport seems to also be a big shopping mall these days and all mobile network operators have a store there. Swisscom has an offer for prepaid 3G Internet access, which, even if it was unintended, is especially interesting for travelers. With the introduction of the iPhone by Swisscom, they also launched a new prepaid tariff which caps Internet charges at 5 Swiss Francs a day. While that is quite a bit if you use it every day, it looks like an acceptable price for occasional use, at least to me. The SIM card is also available separately and can be used with any other device as well.
So after getting into the store, it took only about 5 minutes to get the prepaid SIM. The shop assistant was aware of the Internet tariff and actually what it could be used for. Congrats, I am not quite used to that. Many shop assistants have no clue and will even give out false information such as "it will only work with our phones"…
Their provisioning system is also quick, the SIM card was activated instantly and the tariff option also worked right away. That's how it should be and not like in other countries where activation of an option takes half a day. Kudos to Swisscom, I had a very good customer experience.
Here's a link to the prepaid 3G Internet access Wiki with more details of how to configure your 3G device for the SIM card. Enjoy!
Here's a link to an interesting post in the New York times on the growing use of prepaid SIM cards in the US. Living (at least partly) in Germany, where prepaid SIMs are the norm rather than the exception and where they've had a big impact on pricing in the past couple of years, it's interesting to see how radically different the perception of prepaid still is in the US:
- The article suggests most know them from gangsters in TV shows to avoid being wiretapped. Should they do this in practice, they are in for quite a surprise, one of those TV myths 🙂
- Perceived as expensive, when you compare it to some countries in Europe. I can't remember when I last paid the equivalent of $50 a month for voice calls. At 9 cents a minute, or 4 cents in Austria, that's difficult to do.
- But in the US, $50 a month seems to be cheap and the article states more people are turning to it to reduce their monthly costs.
So it looks like the old ways of doing wireless in the US are slowly changing. Good news, also for me personally, and I already put it to good use last year when I was in the US for a week with an AT&T prepaid SIM card for Internet access via my phone. There are rumors the option I used at the time has been discontinued since, but should that be true, maybe one of the other emerging prepaid offers has something similar for me next time I visit the US.
Now it would be nice if coverage was improved and charges for inbound calls to be abolished, in my eyes one of the main inhibitors of using prepaid with accurate per call billing instead of a monthly minutes bundle applied for both incoming and outgoing calls.
Maybe an upcoming business opportunity for retailers to sell SIM cards and phones separately via the web or otherwise?
Previously, I reported that Vodafone UK is the third operator I know that has now started to offer a prepaid package for wireless broadband access that includes a gigabyte of traffic and is valid up to 12 months. When only looking at the 12 months, it would seem that this is rather a bad deal for the network operator or in other words, not a lot of revenue opportunity. However, I think quite the contrary is the case.
Let's take Austria for example: If you take a post paid contract for wireless Internet access from mobile network operator Three for example, 3 gigabytes per month are now available for 9 euros. Compared to the 15 to 20 euros others like A1 and Yesss charge for the one gigabyte per 12 months, is only a fraction. So the 12 month offers are attractive for infrequent users and travelers who would otherwise not spend anything at all, as even the 9 euros is too much for them. So it is better to get that 15 to 20 euros revenue than not getting it at all. And by doing so, your margin is much higher compared to the contract offers.
I guess a lot of people taking the 12 month prepaid offer will not fully use the gigabyte so the bottom line is even better. And for those that do, they are likely to buy a top-up, thus increasing the revenue once again. A win-win situation in any case.
When Austrian network operator ONE started offering a SIM card for prepaid mobile broadband access that is valid for a year about 18 months ago it was a dream come true. In the meantime, Austria Telecom (A1) has followed and has a similar offer. Both are easy to get, you just walk into a 'Hofer' supermarket or A1 store, lay down 15 or 20 euros and you are all set.
Now Vodafone has started a similar offer in the UK as Zahid on his '3G and 4G wireless' blog and Andrew of 'London Calling' have already reported. For 39 pounds you get a 3G USB modem and a SIM card with one gigabyte of Internet traffic valid for one year already included.
Unfortunately, the offer seems to be a bit more complicated to get started with as the SIM card is not available without the 3G modem. I've asked a bit around and found out that the SIM can be used in another 3G stick as well and additional credit can probably be added by calling the phone number given here and using your credit card. Can't wait to try it out next time I am in the UK.
For the details and configuration, see the Vodafone UK page on the Prepaid Wireless Internet wiki.
I am glad to see this happening outside Austria in countries which are not at the very forefront of the mobile Internet revolution. I hope that during 2009, operators in additional countries will follow. The chances for this happening is not so bad, as competition for customers in the mobile Internet domain is picking up steam in other countries as well.
In the days of prepaid SIMs and multiple phones many people carry, counting the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) based on SIM cards has pretty much become irrelevant. I am the best example that this approach doesn't work anymore. Let's make it simple and only take a look at how I use mobile networks in a single country, Germany:
- The 'currently used prepaid SIM card' in my primary phone which has good rates for telephony and small screen mobile Internet access. Network: T-Mobile, MVNO: Congstar.
- My 'I always stay the same' prepaid SIM who's phone number is known by all my friends and via
which they can reach me no matter in which country I am at the moment.
When I am in Germany, I forward all incoming calls to the currently used SIM card since the price for Internet access is too high. Network: T-Mobile, MVNO: Simplytel.
- My business SIM card, the only one that is postpaid. Network: T-Mobile
- The prepaid SIM card in my car. I have a block heater which is connected to a GSM module. In the morning and evening, I call the car to switch on the heater so my windows are de-frosted and the interior is warm by the time I arrive. Network: T-Mobile, MVNO: Simplytel.
- The prepaid SIM for notebook Internet access. I can activate 200 MB for 10 euros or 5 GB for 20 euros. Network: O2/Telefonica.
- Two prepaid SIMs for notebook Internet access in Germany (€4.95 a day) or when I travel abroad and no local offer is available (€14.95 a day). Network: Vodafone. I have two so I can lend one to guests or colleagues traveling abroad.
- One prepaid SIM to use in the mobile phone abroad for small screen web browsing and mobile e-mail in countries where I don't have a local SIM card. 19 cents for 100 kB is not exactly cheap but does the job well for mobile only use. Network: E-Plus, MVNO: Alditalk.
Altogether that's 8 SIMs and 3 mobile operators. Have fun calculating the ARPU! From a technical point of view all this is quite uneccessary, one sim card for the mobile phone, one sim card for the 3G USB notebook dongle, and one for the block heater in the car is all I would need.
Here's news on an interesting offer recently started by German MVNOs using the e-Plus network (Simyo, Blau, Alditalk): Since October 1st, their prepaid SIM cards are now activated for data roaming in the EU and a number of other countries. Price per 100kb block is 0.19 euros. While not exactly cheap, it's a 10th of their previous price and a 10th of the price of most other operators around Europe.
I wouldn't use it with a notebook but for small screen web browsing and mobile e-mail reception it sound quite affordable. In the countries they support data roaming outside the EU (btw. Switzerland is part of that list…) the price per 100 kb block is 49 cents. For details, see the Prepaid Wireless Internet Access Wiki.
Recently, I tried the offer with my Alditalk prepaid SIM while in France. The first time I tried, right after the start of their offer, 49 cents per 100 kb block were charged. I sent an eMail to their hotline, asking what was going on and they admited that they have a problem with their billing system and returned the money that they overchaged. When I tried again last week, the billing system was fixed and the proper amount was charged.
I've been traveling for two weeks now in Austria and Italy and have been online throughout that time 'only' via 3G to do my daily business thanks to prepaid 3G Internet access. Wherever I went, 3G HSPA access has been available so using the Internet with a 2 MBit/s downlink on average didn't feel much different from using DSL at home. I've reset the data counters on my N95, which I used as my 3G modem during the trip, to get an idea on how much data I exchanged. In the past seven days, I used about 750 MB in total for e-mail, web browsing, company Intranet access, VoIP, IM, etc.
As can be seen on the picture on the left, my uplink to downlink ratio is around 1:2 and not 1:10 as I observed during a previous trip. That's probably got something to do with the fact that this time, I received and sent many e-mails with massive file attachments (those 5 MB PDF or PPT files everybody likes…) and have been using VoIP extensively for lengthy conference calls. With VoIP, the uplink / downlink ratio is 1:1 and generates around 20 MB per hour in each direction.
From a network point of view a 1:2 ratio means that I used about as much resources in the uplink as I did in downlink, since uplink transmissions are less efficient than those in downlink due to the smaller antenna and little transmission power compared to a base station. While in most situations, I could get uplink speeds of around 400 kbit/s, which is almost as fast as the uplink of my DSL line at home, I nevertheless wished I would have had a High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) capable device and network. Those 5 MB Power Point presentations do take quite a while to get transmitted.
Yes, one can never have enough bandwidth 🙂
It's fascinating to see how new ideas are emerging in different countries to market prepaid SIMs for Mobile Broadband Internet access. The latest and greatest I've seen to date comes from Polish operator Plus. Not only do they offer prepaid mobile Internet access, they even have English instructions on the sales package to make it easy for inbound roamers to use their service. I haven't seen that anywhere else yet. Details can be found here. Thanks to Chris_M for putting the information into the Wiki!
This week, I've ventured far beyond my 'normal' 3G use by giving remote support to someone being connected with a notebook over a 3G link for over 8h at a time. During that time, we had a Skype voice session established with excellent audio quality, used Instant Messaging and e-mail to send and receive documents and I had a remote desktop session open to see what is going on and to directly lend a hand when necessary. All sessions were open simultaneously and there was not a single glitch with a single application or the 3G connection.
That's what I call network stability! During that time, around 300 Mbyte of data were exchanged. It's impressive to see that both networks and devices have matured to such a level. On the network side, Mobilkom Austria (A1) has to be congratulated for the stability and performance of their HSPA network and for offering Internet access with prepaid SIMs. On the terminal side, the Huawei E220 modem did it's part. Congratulations to all companies involved, it was a truely great experience!