Our recent trip to Cairns has convinced me once again just how valuable the Internet is when you're in unfamiliar territory. It also convinced me how great the iPhone is: I despise Apple for the was it treats its customers, but I have to hand it to them - they do have a great product on their hand.
Other than allowing me to have the Internet on me wherever I go (albeit through a limiting small screen, annoying Optus connectivity where 3G is rare commodity, and no Flash), the iPhone's built in GPS allows the use of applications such as AroundMe. By identifying where I am and crossing that information with Google Maps and Yellow Pages information, AroundMe told me where to find restaurants, pharmacies and medical help. Things that in the past required lots of wandering around became trivial.
Then there was the experience of what the lack of an Internet connection can do. The English family joining us at Cairns have had a relative back home who became sick during our vacation and needed hospitalization. Obviously, they wanted to keep in touch with the family, but what means did they have? I gave them an Aussie prepaid mobile phone but that proved too much of a pain for them to use (it was a Windows Mobile phone, so it's all Microsoft's fault). My iPhone's monthly internet allowance was too meager for them to rely on; it's good for text and information based web services, not heavy stuff. As a result, they had to use hotel phones and their own English mobile phones, which meant they're going to have the shock of their lives back home when they receive their global roaming bills.
If, however, I was to have an 3G Internet wi-fi hotspot with me (the kind I discussed here), things could have been different. Instead of using any type of conventional phones, the family could have used Skype over my netbook to chat with their relatives all day and all of the night at negligible costs. They could have even used their own iPhone for that, at the same time they were using the netbook, and without paying global roaming. Needless to say, they could have emailed, Facebooked, tweeted, and done a hundred more things to deal with the situation that full on Internet access allows you to do.
Given the obvious advantages of having a 3G wi-fi hotspot on me while away, I did some further research on the best options there. My conclusion is to go with the Netcomm MyZone modem, currently sold for $288 at OfficeWorks. In Australia, I would stick a Telstra prepaid Next G SIM inside this modem. Here's why.
The Netcomm product is better than its rivals from Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and 3 because it uses the 850MHz frequency while they use the 900MHz. This difference means that the Netcomm would work on Telstra's 3G network, the best mobile network in Australia by a very wide margin. The downside is that it would only work for Optus, Vodafone and 3 inside the big cities; outside those cities the latter providers use the 900MHz range.
Going out of Australia, the 900MHz range is pretty rare, while Israel uses the 850MHz range. This implies the Netcomm solution is the better choice for my potential international travels in addition to my Aussie travels. For the record, it deals with most European demands as well as American ones (as do its rivals).
Now for the SIM part. Telstra are notorious for ripping its customers off, but recently - a week ago, actually - they decided they've been losing too many customers and slashed their broadband prices down. Now you can get your hands on a prepaid data SIM of theirs, loaded with 3Gb you can use over a month, for $30, which is not too bad. Needless to say, Telstra has to make life hard somehow: Telstra prepaid data SIMs are only available on their special iPad programs, which means that when you get the SIM you will need to have it converted on the spot from a micro SIM to a normal SIM (blame Apple there).
Do that and you'll have the Internet on you wherever you go no matter what equipment you're using: Linux and wi-fi equipped mobile phones are all catered for (in contrast, the Virgin modem cannot be set up using Linux; unlike the Netcomm, which is managed through the browser, the Virgin modem requires Windows or Mac drivers).
The only catch would be getting your hands on a local SIM upon landing at your foreign destination. I suspect that soon enough we'll be greeted by phone company booths at the arrival terminals, the same way we are currently being greeted by car rental companies. Nothing will stand between people and Internet connectivity anymore.