A Prepaid Broadband SIM without an APN

In an ideal world you take your notebook wherever you want and that built in 3G modem or USB dongle gives you access anywhere. That pretty much works today while you stay in the country of the network operator you are with. As soon as you move out of the country, however, hyper expensive roaming charges spell the end of the fun. Mrs. Reding will surely improve the situation over time but it won't come quickly, especially for notebook access.

The practical solution today is to buy a prepaid broadband SIM, now available in many countries , and replace the home operators SIM while staying abroad, if the 3G device is not locked. The main issue for most users, however, comes afterwards. Usually, each network operator uses it's own access point name (APN) and sometimes even a username and password that has to be set on the notebook. This is an action that most people are not really very comfortable doing.

The thing is that this is totally unnecessary. O2 in Germany for example has recently introduced a feature in their network to accept any APN. As a consequence no matter what the user configures or even if he leaves the APN blank the connection will be established. While I don't like O2's approch to do it for all SIM cards, it would have benefit when being used in combination with prepaid broadband SIMs. Add to that a big fat note on the sales package that no configuration is required beyond putting the SIM in your already existing open 3G device and you've got a sure winner.

A simple thing to be done and I would not be surprised if operators in countries such as Austria, where you can buy prepaid SIM cards for Internet access in any supermarket for a couple of euros, would start to implement this feature soon to make it easy to switch to them. Switching to them, that's the incentive for them to do it! And a strong one at that.

So this is the practical scenario: You arrive at the airport in another country and after baggage claim you head straight for the next 'I sell everything and nothing' shop at the airport to get such a SIM. You put it into your dongle or notebook and that's it. Or even better, it's sold by the plane's cabin crew on the flight.

The only thing that stands in the way of this in many countries is the requirement to identify yourself when buying a SIM card. But in countries such as Austria and the U.K. where this is not required, it's totally feasible and operators have the will to think about it. And in countries were identification is required, how about identifying the user via a landing page where he has to type in his name, address and maybe credit card information that can be checked? In some countries like Germany, name, address and passport number is all that is required and SIM cards are activated by some prepaid vendors like that over the Internet.

I think many travelers wouldn't think twice about paying 20 euros for a gigabyte or so even if they are just in the country for a couple of days. And it's likely that most of them wouldn't fully use the 1GB anyway. A good deal I would say for everyone involved!

DPI and eMail blocking

The more I use wireless Internet access, the more things I stumble over how network operators use Deep Packet Inspaction (DPI) to 'shape' use to their liking. After having been blind charged for eMail in the past and having seen reports of network operators modifying email signaling exchanges to prevent encryption from kicking in, this time I am blocked from receiving eMails.

My current mobile Internet access via a prepaid SIM from Orange in France contains unlimited Internet access and 10 MB (yes, a mere TEN!) to access my email via POP3 or IMAP. I have no idea how I could have stepped over this limit since I am only days in the monthly subscription cycle and all emails downloaded to the mobile are capped at 15 kb. However, one morning I could no longer poll my mailboxes.

Profimail on my N95 crashes as soon as I attempt to access my mailboxes and the Nokia email client reports that the connection to my email provider has failed. Over a Wifi link, both programs can access my email just fine. So I turned to Wireshark to check what is going on and saw that when connected via Orange, the TCP connection requests on the port numbers reserved for POP3 and IMAP are not discarded, as I would have expected it, but immediately answered with a RST (Reset) packet. Note that this packet must have been originated by the DPI device. Looks like Profimail doesn't handle rejected connections gracefully and decides to exit.

Apart from the technical glitch that this provokes, I don't think Orange is doing itself a favor by just blocking incoming eMail. They should have at least sent me an SMS saying that my monthly transmission volume for email has been exceeded and that I shouldn't be surprised that it has stopped working. They could even use it as an upsell opportunity to open the email gate again for an additional charge after sending a text message with a certain content. I'd be happy to pay even if I don't know how I stepped over the limit. Without this option I am now stuck to the mobile webmail interface of my mailboxes while in France, which is a bit uncomfortable. The average user, however, will just be turned off by such a behavior and will probably turn away from the service entierly.

Also, they should offer a web interface that shows me when an how I have spent 10MB on emails in just a couple of days. I am really puzzled.

Mobile Broadband Use in Sweden – Interesting Statistics

I have never been to Sweden before, but judging from Ram Krishnan's report on his blog and the pages on Sweden on the prepaid wireless internet wiki, it seems the situation there concerning mobile broadband use is similar as in Austria: Affordable prices and prepaid SIMs that make it easy to go online with a 3G USB stick have made the mobile broadband market surge in the past 18 months. Ram quotes from the 2007 Swedish Telecommunications Market Report of the National Post and Telecom Agency (PTS), available in English here, on the uptake of mobile Internet access in Sweden. Here's my interpretation of the facts and figures:

Only 1% use mobile broadband as their only Internet access

If you have some time, take a look at diagram 8 in the report and Chapter 5 in general, there are some very interesting facts: The diagram shows that at the end of 2007 there were about 375.000 mobile broadband users, up from only 90.000 a year earlier. That compares to about 3 million DSL users and a population of around 10 million. The report says on page 39 that of 2.000 people questioned, only 40 said that they used the 3G dongle at home to complement another access method and only 20 (i.e. = 1%) said that the 3G dongle was their only Internet connectivity at home. So these numbers clearly point out that 3G Internet access is currently used mainly as a supplement to fixed line Internet connectivity. The report also says that since this is a relatively new phenomenon and that it remains to be seen if 3G will remain mainly an add-on to fixed line connectivity at home or if it will seriously start to compete with DSL.

500MB on average per user per month

Diagram 8 says that 375.000 users generated a traffic of 2.200 Terabyte (in the whole of 2007 ?). If you do the maths that amounts to (2.200.000 GByte / 375.000 users / 12 months = 493 MBytes / month.

How Close Are We To Saturation?

So how much is this in practice, how close are we to network saturation? I guess that's quite easy to say for someone who has access to the data of mobile operators. But I don't have that, so let's do a little extrapolating to get an idea of where we might be here with a bunch of assumptions: Let's say the number of people covered by a single 3G base station is roughly the same as a 2G base station, 2000 people. 375.000 broadband users compared to a population of 10 million is 3.75% of the population. Let's double that value to 7% to account for unequal 3G network distribution. 7% of 2000 people are 140 people per cell with a 3G card. Let's say the base stations usually have 3 sectors, and each sector gives an average throughput of 2 MBit/s. That's 6 MBit/s in total. Let's say busy hour accounts for 10% of the daily traffic of 500 MB * 140 people / 30 days / 10 = 233 MB/hour/base station. The capacity of the base station is 6 MBit/s * 60 seconds * 60 minutes / 8 bytes = 2700 MB/hour (minus the capacity used for voice calls).

The above calculation brings us at less than 10% of total available capacity of a base station today. But the input parameters used are highly speculative so the number could easily be half of that our it could be double. If anyone has a different opinion, please let me know.

How Much Traffic Growth in 2008 And Beyond?

This of course opens up the big question of how the growth will continue. When taking the 2006 numbers from the report, an average user consumed 200.000 GByte / 90.000 users / 12 months = 185 MByte / month, i.e. less than half of that of 2007. So this year's traffic and that of the following years will depend on:

  • How many additional users can be signed up
  • Do these users have the same usage patterns as the users today, or more, or less? Potentially, falling prices could attract users with less usage and only very occasional use but also other groups with little money but high Youtube desire.

I think the numbers are hard to predict since the user behavior and clientele will change. While I think that at this point Generation Youtube is not yet on a 3G stick, I wonder what will happen once they do?

The report references a forecast for 2008,
which reports another 140.000 3G USB sticks have been sold in the first
quarter 2008 and which expects 600.000 users by the end of 2008, an
increase of 40% over 2007. This is impressive but definitely a slowdown over the growth observed between 2006/07.

If we stick to the numbers above, we should still be way clear of the capacity limit for 2008. Same for the year after if another 300.000 subscribers are added. If the amount of traffic per user grows by a factor of two in that time frame and the network stays the same, data traffic would grow to 933 MB/base station/h in 2010, still clear of the capacity limit.

Once the limit of current deployments are reached, operators have a number of options:

  • Deploy a second carrier frequency
  • Densify the network, i.e. install more macro, micro or pico base stations to reduce the coverage per site and thus the number of users per base station
  • Work on DSL/mobile broadband conversion and offer interesting packages to users to offload traffic from the mobile network. This of course only helps if people start using wireless broadband as an alternative to DSL. This doesn't seem to be the case so far.

Anyway, one thing is for sure: In countries where broadband wireless access is priced attractively, base stations are no longer just stitting around idling and producing only heat.

News from Wireless Austria

From a wireless perspective, it's always a pleasure to go to Austria because this is one of the most competitive markets for wireless Internet access I have yet been to. Here, the problem is not to find one good offer for prepaid wireless Internet access but to actually choose the best one among many offers.

The Status Quo Last Time

When I was last in Austria, I was happy to see that 3G networks are now also available in small rural towns, far away from bigger towns and highway routes. At the time, I could only use the 3G network there with my German Vodafone Websession SIM for 15 euros a day.  My Yesss prepaid SIM card, which I had acquired for 50 euros and which gave me 3GB worth of data volume I could use over 12 months, was useless there, as their 3G network did not at the time and still has not expanded into this area. Since I am also staying in bigger cities where the SIM worked great, I was not too bothered.

From 50 Euros For The SIM Down To 15 Within One Year

In the meantime, competition has kicked in and the local incumbent, A1 (Mobilkom Austria) now has a similar offer with their b.free broadband SIM card for 15 euros, valid for one year, with a prepaid data volume of 1GB. Getting the SIM is as simple as walking into an A1 store, putting the cash on the counter and walking out with the SIM card 3 minutes later. Compared to the 50 euros I had to pay only a year earlier for a similar offer (although with 3GB data volume), this offer is much cheaper and A1's 3G network seems to reach much farther than ONE's, which is used by the YESSS SIM card.

The Competition Reacts

Yesss has reacted in the meantime and now offers the SIM card for €19.99 with the additional bonus compared to the b.free SIM to allow cheap voice calls for 6.8 cents a minute to all fixed and wireless destinations. If you don't have a 3G USB stick yet, they'll throw one in for 69 euros. The hardware is not locked to Yesss, so it can be used with other SIMs, too. And, best of all, it's available everywhere in Hofer supermarkets, I personally checked.

T-Mobile has also reacted and now offers a prepaid SIM card called "Free Willy" via Telering, but only together with a 3G USB stick. Technically, the 89 euro offer is cheaper than the others mentioned above but not interesting for those that already have a 3G USB stick.

Free Hotline

Another refreshing difference compared to other countries is that calls to the hotline are free. We had some older SIM cards for voice telephony and the price per minute was no longer competitive. I was reluctant to call the hotline, being used to horrendous per minute prices so I went into a shop to ask them to change it. They told me to call the free hotline and indeed, after just a couple of minutes and free of charge, we were in the new cheaper tariffs. Joy!

Great 3G Hardware For Cheap

Apart from a number of SIM cards for prepaid Internet Access, I am astonished about the unlocked 3G hardware available everywhere. Apart from the Huawei E160 3G USB stick for 70 euros that can be bought in Hofer supermarkets everywhere even without the Yesss SIM card (!), '3' has started selling the D100 Wifi/3G bridge for 99 euros. Great to give access to the Internet to more than one computer at a time. According to the web page, the bridge is not locked to a specific operator.

Postpaid Offers

For those living in the country and willing to go for a contract, '3' offers 3GB data volume for Internet access for 8 euros a month, or 15 GB for 16 euros, both prices apply if you bring your own 3G modem. Like all other offers mentioned above, there is no fine print excluding VoIP, IM or other applications and the contract can be terminated at any time. That leaves me breathless.

Another Austrian highlight is the introduction offer of Orange, who recently bought mobile network operator ONE. With their "Europe 0" tariff, any fixed line or mobile destination in Austria AND Europe can be called for 25 euros a month. Time is limited to 1000 minutes, i.e. over 16 hours. The kicker is that the offer is not limited to fixed line numbers!


Austria is clearly a very competitive market but nevertheless, I don't hear anyone screaming that they don't earn money. Beyond the pricing, it's also interesting that nobody is talking about blocking VoIP, P2P, IM or other services. And yet, things work nicely. Gives one something to think about.

Using Vista’s Firewall to Limit Traffic For Volume Restricted Access

It's great, all programs on my computer these days think they have to
automatically check for updates whenever they are started or sense that
a connection to the Internet has been established. I usually don't mind
and even welcome it. However, there are situations, especially when I
use volume restricted wireless 3G access such as Vodafone Websessions,
in which I don't want those multi-megabyte downloads. So I've switched
most update services to semi-manual or manual to control this behavior.
But even this sometimes doesn't stop the talkers.

Recently, the Windows update service told me it wanted to download a 30
MB .NET update. Sure, no problem, I was at home at the time, so please
go ahead I thought. However, it didn't as there must have been a
problem with the update service. So the originally agreed update only
started a couple of days later when I was abroad, hanging on a thin
line. No way to stop that 30 MB download, no task revealing itself as
the culprit that could be terminated, no nothing… Ugh, I was angry.

But here's the solution in case you have Windows Vista installed:
Go to the firewall configuration and set the profile which is used for
dial-up connections (in German it's called "Öffentliches Profil",
that's probably or "public profile" in English) to block all "outgoing
(TCP/UDP) connections". Then go to the outgoing rules section and
create new rules which allow only the programs you like such as
Firefox, your eMail program, etc. to establish outbound connections. In
a last step, assign these rules to the "public profile". No more nasty
connection requests and update dialogues while you are away.

SIM Cards on a Boat Ride

I recently took a trip over the English channel from Calais to Dover on a P&O ferry and noticed the vending machine shown in the picture on the right from which passengers can get English SIM cards from different operators for their time on the island. Since no registration is required in the UK when buying a SIM, it is already activated and can therefore be used right away.

Note that only UK operators were offering their SIM cards in the machine, French SIM cards were nowhere to be seen. This could be because the ferry was operated by an English company or maybe because identification is required when buying a SIM card in France. Maybe it's also due to the lack of real competition in the wireless market in France. Hard to tell.

However, upon my return to France, I noticed that in some train stations and also in some supermarkets, Virgin, a MVNO using Boyugues' GSM network sells 'mobile phones to go'. The box says they can be used right away but a copy of the passport has to be sent to them within 7 days. The text on the box also suggested that topping up the account might also only be possible once the registration has been processed. I wonder if that is a creative way to comply to government regulations or to ensure people send in their details.

Anyway, I hope that SIM card vending machines do make it into other places such as airports as well, it would significantly reduce the effort to get a local SIM card for mobile Internet access when arriving in a country.

Rise and Demise: Wind Italy vs. 3 UK

In my recent travels I have noticed that some wireless network operators have greatly improved their network for Internet access while others have consistently declined. To examples from both ends of the scale:

I haven't used the network of Wind in Italy for notebook access to the Internet a lot in the past anymore since they had no HSPA in their network. Even in the standard 3G mode, connections where slow due high packet loss. Recently, however, they have upgraded their network to HSPA, at least in Rome, and I have since gone back using their prepaid SIM for notebook Internet access. I consistently get around 1 MBit/s in downlink direction (most likely traffic shapped) and 384 kbit/s in uplink direction when sending eMails with file attachments and pictures. Well done Wind!

On the other end of the scale is 3UK. I've bought one of their SIM cards a couple of months ago and during that time, their performance in the UK was ok. These days however, both in the UK and abroad, I consistently get bad throughput and sometimes the connection doesn't work at all. During a week in London last week I got so frustrated with their service that I stopped using it at some point and replaced it with another prepaid SIM. Randomly blocked TCP and UDP ports to keep me from getting eMail and setting up my VPN connection in addition to slow throughput is not acceptable. This week in Rome it's also been pretty much unusable, data rates are just too slow. Well, I guess I will try again in half a year. Not earlier probably, because I don't see a reason to waste 10 pounds to activate the data option just to find out their service is anything but a service…

For alternatives and other countries take a look at the prepaid wireless Internet access Wiki.

1st Anniversary of the Prepaid Wireless Internet Wiki

A year ago, I decided to share my knowledge about how to stay connected to the Internet while on the move with prepaid SIM cards. A Wiki looked like the best solution for the info I had on about four or five different countries. Pages can easily be changed because offers are changing frequently and I was speculating that others might put there info in there as well. Now a year later, I have to say the result is stunning!

  • My initial 4 or 5 pages have expanded to 85, most supplied by others.
  • Entries now range from North and South America, Europe and Asia to Australia.
  • In July 2008, the Wiki had 12.000 page hits from 6.000 different visitors, that's about 200 visitors a day.

I am very happy because my willingness to share has actually brought me great new tips I was not aware about. Especially the following have been invaluable to me personally:

So thanks to all of you how have added your information to the Wiki and to those who that keep the pages up to date in this quickly changing market. Together we have created an invaluable source of information for travelers!

Sunrise Switzerland Starts Marketing Prepaid Internet

It’s good to see Sunrise Switzerland starting to offer mobile Internet access for notebooks via a prepaid SIM. With their TakeAway Prepaid product, 3G Internet access is billed at 3 Swiss francs per hour, about 1.86 euros. While I would personally have preferred a volume based offer I think it is nevertheless an interesting offer to consider for vacations in Switzerland or for the time spent at Zurich airport 🙂 For details see the corresponding page on the Prepaid Wireless Internet Wiki.

Via teltarif.de

Orange Internet Max – The Port 25 Trap

Here’s a blog entry about something that leaves me quite speechless: A couple of months ago, Orange France started to offer mobile Internet access via their prepaid Mobicarte SIMs. For 9 euros a month, Orange says they grant full access to the Internet (no, not the Web, the Internet!) from mobile phones with their Internet Max offer. The fine print says may limit the speed after 500 MB a month. Further they say that eMail via SMTP, IMAP and POP3 is limited to 10 MB per month. And finally they say that VoIP, Peer to Peer and Newsgroups are not allowed. Tethering to PCs is also not allowed and will be billed separately. No word about how much is charged separately or what happens after the 10 MB per month eMail limitation. 

So I activated the option on my prepaid SIM and have used it for a couple of weeks now. As per the description, all the services I use on my mobile phone such as web browsing with OperaMini, the default web browser, eMail (POP3 and SMTP), A-GPS ephemeris lookup, etc. work well.

Then recently, I discovered that every now and then my prepaid account seems to leak a few cents. But why? After experimenting a bit I found out that every time I send an eMail via SMTP some cents vanish. To verify I repeatedly sent eMails over the course of several days, deactivated and activated TLS encryption, but each time the result was the same. Sending an eMail with a 200 kb file attachment resulted in a charge of 3.50 euros!!!? Did I pass that 10 MB boundary? Unlikely, since I only sent and received few eMails from activation time until I first noticed the behavior. And even if that is the reason, why did the system not send an SMS to warn me? It can bill me but it can’t send me a warning?

This sort of service behavior is one of the reasons that keep users from using the Internet on their phones. Imagine I had used a post paid SIM with the offer and would only have discovered this behavior a month later.

Hello dear readers at Orange France! If you read this and have any idea why this is happening I’d be very interested to hear from you. Or maybe this is an issue of the billing system? In that case I am sure there is someone who could fix it. Could I also get reimbursed please?