Work Globally, Roam Locally

By  Steve Barth — July 31, 2008

Whether you're a globe-trotting corporate warrior, or a member of your enterprise's I.T. team charged with managing a plethora of mobile devices at large around the world, you'll want to check out this special package on global roaming. Award-winning journalist and industry consultant Steve Barth shares pointers gained from his firsthand experience during a 25-year career spent in such farflung locales as Nairobi and Bangkok. And, wireless industry guru Andrew Seybold gives us an update on the Gobi chipsets and the promise and potential they present for the multinational mobile enterprise. We've even included a primer on global wireless standards, in case you, or your workers, need a refresher on what's out there.

On final approach to the gleaming new Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport, you'll notice a strange ritual throughout business class that instantly marks the frequent flyers: passengers deftly disassemble their wireless handsets, juggling postage-stamp-sized Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) cards. That way, as soon as the wheels touch down, they're logged into the Thai network, checking messages and talking away at local rates.

Foreign SIM cards are the luggage stickers of the new millennium. During his exile after a coup, the jet-setting telecom tycoon and former prime minister of Thailand reportedly carried eight mobile phones and 20 SIM cards.

A traveling executive runs up roaming charges averaging $693.50 per international trip, according to a study by Harris Interactive. That's equal to a year's worth of domestic wireless use. Multiply that by recurring travel for dozens, hundreds or thousands of employees in the age of globalized business, and the problem is clear.

At the same time, there's also a clear value to being able to communicate with the home office from anywhere in the world, measurable in the improved productivity and real-time access to crucial information that can result in well-informed decisions and lucrative business deals.

According to Harris Interactive, most end users don't even know the travel-pertinent details of their corporate service plans, their wireless networks, or their handset technologies.

Yet, globalization requires trips that resemble one of the following two broad scenarios. Corporate connection strategies need to be different for each case.

In the first case, our road warrior is visiting one world city after another -- navigating unfamiliar airports and transportation networks, checking into new hotels, eating strange foods and, hopefully, arriving at meetings on time, despite zero knowledge of the local language. There is no way to completely predict the communications challenges this executive will face, so desperation often is the mother of invention. His carry-on is full of cables, adapters and calling cards.

The second scenario is possibly much more common. In this case, the traveling exec is visiting the same partners or colleagues in the same locations on a regular basis. She's settled into a routine of familiar food, shelter and meeting choices. After the first trip or two, she can come and go in her sleep and has evolved a number of coping strategies for all of her communications needs so she doesn't have to panic every time one of them doesn't work. She's learned which side of her regular hotel has better Wi-Fi and cellular coverage.

My own consulting is a good example of what you'll face in both situations. In recent years, I've been essentially commuting between Los Angeles and Bangkok to work with a number of Thai government agencies on knowledge management for economic development. Meanwhile, on behalf of those clients, I was also attending brief meetings around the world in locations as diverse as Amsterdam, Halifax and Nairobi.

At one point in Bangkok, I was bouncing among offices at four separate client locations across town -- plus the desk in the hotel, where most of my work actually got done. Some clients had set me up with wired or wireless access to and through local networks -- but only half of those were safe from viruses and intrusions.

The rest of the time, my laptop was online via my own mobile phone's data roaming on the local SIM card I kept topped up with airtime. The handset was even more useful than the laptop, however, since the majority of my business was conducted via either voice or SMS with colleagues who did not themselves spend their days in front of PCs.

Short trips are more trying. In Nairobi, Internet bandwidth was restricted by the government. Access in Amsterdam was first class, but prohibitively expensive.

In Durham, England, I was unable to get any phone signal at all for three days. Yet, camping in the Yorkshire countryside a day later I was able to read the entire Sunday Seattle Times in my tent via GPRS. Once, I traversed Berlin's Kufurstendam at 3 a.m. because dialup failed in my hotel, only to discover the all-night Internet cafe wouldn't allow me to upload the document due six time zones away.

Mobile phones and smartphones have become the primary communications tools during business travel. Outside the U.S., business people are accustomed to using their handsets for voice, messaging, data and even e-commerce. But globetrotting requires more than just state-of-the-art mobiles leveraging global communication standards -- it requires a can-do creative attitude on the part of travelers and the enterprises that support them.

The first step is to assess the level of productivity you'll need on the road. Do you simply need to keep in touch with the home office via voice and text messages? Will you make local calls? Do you need to check and respond to corporate email? Will you need to access and exchange up-to-date data? Do you need to prepare, send and receive large documents? Will you use the Web to conduct research? Do you need to participate in voice and video conferences?

Depending on your needs, your access choices include:

> Working from unsecured public terminals at Internet cafes or hotel business centers;

> Using wired Ethernet -- or, occasionally, dial-up -- connections from your own laptop;

> Using a smartphone for voice, messaging, Web surfing and possibly document transmission;

> Using a phone as a modem (or a built-in or plug-in cellular modem) for laptop access to company servers and the Web ;

> Using Wi-Fi (and soon Wi-Max) on a laptop or smartphone, via hotel, client and/or public networks.

In reality, the savvy business traveler will likely use more than one option. In fact, staying connected is often a matter of multiple redundant backups.

Never Roam Alone
U.S. carriers AT&T and T-Mobile operate GSM networks (see sidebar, page 32), so their customers can theoretically make and receive calls around the world.

Verizon operates a CDMA-based network, but the carrier now offers a few dual-mode CDMA/GSM phones from Motorola and RIM that, when combined with an international roaming plan, extend coverage to GSM countries. In most cases, that will include data services overseas at whatever speeds the local networks can support.

U.S.-based international roaming plans are convenient if you're just passing through a territory. But the charges pile up fast. Even a wrong number ringing at 3 a.m. can cost you up to $5 a minute in Kenya. I've found that even a conservative amount of keeping in touch through voice and data roaming adds at least $100 to the cost of a short trip.

If I'm going to be in a country more than a few days, I'll buy a local SIM card with prepaid minutes. These are available in most countries at ubiquitous phone shops and convenience stores. Each card costs as little as $20-$40 with enough air time to last the trip. In most countries, incoming calls are free. Data services can usually be activated without an extra charge -- just a per-megabyte debit to the balance.

Here's a tip: Ask someone at the store where you purchase the SIM card to set up the phone, add the purchased airtime to the account, and notify the network to activate data services. The shopkeeper will be able to negotiate with the carrier in the native language.

As usual, U.S. carriers are behind the curve. European Union regulators are demanding that operators lower the costs of cross-border voice and data roaming throughout the 27-nation bloc. Meanwhile, new SIM providers such as Brightroam promise cost-saving options for voice calls and mobile data access.

Brightroam provides local SIMs in Australia, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, India and the UK. Elsewhere, they offer global roaming SIMs that operate in 160 countries (with free incoming calls in 40).

The company claims to save users as much as 80% over standard international roaming rates, although retail rates can vary wildly by country.

In Germany, for example, you can make local calls for 49 cents per minute, call home for $.89/min, but receive incoming calls for free. In Thailand, it will still cost you $2.38/min to make a local call, $2.32/min to the U.S., and $1.68/min for all incoming calls, according to the website (Their rates are sometimes significantly higher than T-Mobile or AT&T, so check your destinations on their website to see if you'd be much better off here with a local prepaid SIM.)

Users of unlocked tri- and quad-band GSM phones can simply swap out their U.S. SIM for the duration. Subscribers on other types of networks can also get unlocked global phones from Brightroam.

Unlike prepaid SIMs purchased in foreign countries, Brightroam SIMs come with English-language 24/7 customer support. In June, Brightroam introduced a World SIM plan that includes data roaming.

Dual-SIM phones are starting to emerge from handset manufacturers. For example, E-Ten just announced its new Glofiish DX900, touted as the world's first dual-SIM and dual-standby Windows Mobile handset, supporting high-speed 3.5G (UMTS/HSDPA) and 2G (GSM/EDGE) communications, as well as GPS and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Industrial-Strength Roaming
Handsets aren't the only channel to connectivity. Often, a full-sized screen and keyboard, applications and files are essential to overseas productivity. While tethering your laptop to a mobile phone (or a cellular data modem from the likes of Sierra Wireless and others) theoretically might provide connectivity, in practice this method isn't reliable enough to be your sole option.

Qualcomm's new Gobi chipsets, already being implemented by major laptop manufacturers, will ease some of the pain (see story, page 30).

Wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi are increasingly available at acceptable speeds worldwide in business hotels, airports and other venues. Furthermore, Wi-Max has recently been accepted as a global standard.

But these options don't come cheap. In fact, costs can be daunting for Wi-Fi roaming. Frequent travelers can subscribe to global roaming plans that bundle Wi-Fi access from multiple providers, such as iPass. Although these unlimited plans can cost $80/month or more, they may include mobile 3G roaming, dial-up and soon even in-flight access as airlines add Wi-Fi.

iPass integrates more than 300 different Wi-Fi hotspots, Ethernet 3G mobile broadband and dial-up numbers for provider networks. This offers redundant coverage via more than 100,000 access points in thousands of cities in more than 70 countries.

Even providers beyond the iPass network can be accessed through the iPassConnect client application. This includes hotspot detection, automatic configuration, VPN auto-connect integration and enterprise AAA integration. iPass certifies in-network hotspots based on service availability, connection quality and security-solution interoperability.

Per-minute pricing options to avoid "day rate" charges can save an average of 60% per day, while unlimited flat-rate pricing in some regions can improve cost predictability.

Checking your home office voicemail while overseas is another headache, worthy of its own article. One option is to use Skype or other Voice-over-IP (VoIP) networks. PC-to-PC calls are free, and mobile phones or landlines can be connected at discounted rates. Business use of Skype has grown.

Of course, all this creativity in the service of connectivity is an I.T. team's worst nightmare when it comes to security. The paper this article is printed on can't soak up all the tears your CIO will shed over securing multiple devices, with multiple operating systems and multiple connection channels scattered throughout the world.

Yet, rules and policies can govern the ways in which savvy travelers use these services safely.

Enterprise solutions from Brightroam, iPass and others include management tools that can simplify assignment of services, reporting and support. These can also be configured to enforce policy-based and encrypted security measures.

For example, client software in the iPass solution establishes secure credentials during the login process, and enforces the use of VPNs, personal firewalls and anti-virus programs. Built-in device management will automatically update end-users with the latest operating system patches and security applications before opening corporate network access. //

Steve Barth, an award-winning international journalist for more than 25 years, now works as a consultant to worldwide corporate, academic and government clients.


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