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July 9, 2010 8:33 AM

Traveling Europe With A 50MB Bandwidth Cap

I spent the last two weeks with my wife eating our way through Paris and Italy.

We went into the trip with very little preparation due to our hectic schedules and relatively last minute nature of the trip, except for one important step: I bought 50MB of international mobile data for my iPhone.

I did this because if you just go and use your iPhone without a prepaid plan, you're going to be paying by the KB, and 10MB can cost $200.

To my astonishment, I still had to pay $60 for my 50MB. More than a dollar a megabyte. And there was no discount by volume as it's $120 for 100MB. Though they did provide a discount where overage cost $5 for 1MB instead of $20.

I decided that 50MB should be about right as a quick test showed that downloading email and using Maps didn't use much data, and I could load a webpage for about 1MB or so. I also assumed I'd have access to Wi-Fi hotspots at various points to conserve my mobile data.

I noticed that voicemails can involve a lot of data transfer, though, so I set up a Google Voice account where I could listen to all of my voicemails online through my computer as I knew I'd have Internet access in most of our hotel rooms.

As we got onto the plane in Philadelphia headed for Paris I reset the bandwidth tracker built into every iPhone and swore that I wouldn't take my eye off that throughout the trip. Here's a recount of my experiences:

Paris - We get off the plane bleary-eyed into a cab that leads to a lovely day in Paris filled with baguettes, a bike ride down the Seine to Notre Dame, and a perfect first French dinner outside at a bistro, finished with a chocolate croissant from a bakery across the street.

My data usage stays relatively low until I casually click on a couple of links to sites within emails. After loading not more than a few webpages my cap bounces up towards 10MB. Even though I know browsing's data intensive, this experience leads me to be ultra vigilant and view only a handful of webpages through the duration of our trip.

We spent the rest of our time in Paris seeing the sights, eating the food, and enjoying quality time together. Even better was that I was using email and maps indiscriminately while avoiding the hassle of trying to find open wi-fi networks, and yet we made it through four days and I was only in the teens megabyte wise.

Venice - We only spent a day in Venice, but the iPhone could have never been more essential. We took the water bus in, saw our stop come up, was preparing to get off, and then watched our stop go right on by. Apparently they don't stop at every stop automatically.

So we get off at the next stop and have to navigate what's described as a "10 minute walk" by the water bus captain back to the last stop, and we can get there by just going to the first street and taking a left. Heh... In his defense that street was the main thoroughfare and did kinda get us back there, but it wasn't straightforward and it wasn't 10 minutes. Our saving grace was using Google Maps on the iPhone.

We had it on constantly to make sure we were heading in the right direction, and for the most part the GPS had a perfect bead on where we were so we could closely track our progress. Having it on so constantly did seem to sip data a bit faster, but it's still an inherently low bandwidth kind of operation, so our usage was staying on track.

Florence - Not a lot of report here mobile bandwidth wise. We ate some tremendous food, drank a lot of wine, and wandered the streets. I continued using email and maps indiscriminately, and we stayed on a good trajectory over these four days. I was going to be able to make it to Rome with more than 10MB left.

Rome - While I felt strong going into Rome cap-wise, a throwaway click onto a webpage and the need to read a document sent to me as an attachment started getting me uncomfortably close to my 50MB cap.

I started changing my usage behavior. I suppressed the urge for the idle email check. I relied more on real maps and quick glances rather than walking around with it on and in my hand.

The iPhone did continue to amaze me at its versatility in making our lives easier. When our cab driver at the train station didn't understand much English nor my butchering of the pronunciation of where we needed to be going, I simply showed him the address and where it was on the map. When we were walking into the Vatican and I hadn't had access to a printer to print out our tickets bought online, I just put my iPhone up to the glass showing the email confirmation. There were numerous times it helped us bridge the language gap and that's without any specialized translation apps!

By the end of the trip I'd somehow managed to stay just under 50MB, ending up at 49.6.

Reflecting upon this experience, it's interesting how this cap absolutely did start to change my behavior and cause anxiety. I had to be conscious of conserving my data, of suppressing my usage.

While I know this might be an extreme case, why aren't we talking more about the impact of bandwidth caps on suppressing the utilization of broadband? I don't know how big of an impact it has but anecdotally I can vouch that it certainly has some.

I'm also a bit flabbergasted at why this international mobile data was so expensive. Is mobile data really that expensive in Europe for everyone? Or just for foreign travelers? I'm a bit embarrassed that I don't already know the answer to that myself, but I'm definitely going to find out!

A final interesting development to share bandwidth wise began in Florence when I started to download a lot more to my computer as I'd run out of movies I brought with us on the iPad and was starting to rent them through iTunes. Over the next week I downloaded a handful of movies that consumed gigabytes worth of bandwidth.

What this highlights is the realities of how wireless caps suppress media consumption. This simple act of renting movies can be exponentially higher than the bandwidth caps that are being set in most every country for wireless broadband. And I wasn't even downloading the HD versions as I was using what felt like DSL.

If we want everyone to be able to buy into this new economy for digital media, we need to make sure everyone has access to wired connections with much more robust caps to handle the heavy lifting of high quality video delivery.

But I digress on this tangent for now as what I'm most concerned at this moment is that I didn't unintentionally blow through the bandwidth caps that my hosts might have had for their wired connections I was downloading movies through!

In any event, our trip to Europe was perfect and in large part precisely because of this 50MB of data. So all in all, I'd say it was the best $60 I spent, other than maybe that truffle steak my eat devoured in Paris. C'est la vie!

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