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3G Hell

Doc Searls

Issue #198, October 2010

The Internet may be world-wide and free, but 3G is neither. Can we fix that?

In June of this year, I arrived in Paris for a five-week stay, during which I had hoped to enjoy my new Android Nexus One phone and maybe get some development started on the Android version of an app I'm working on. I'm about halfway through the trip right now (early July), and I have gotten nowhere with data on the Android, outside of Wi-Fi in our rented apartment. (And I won't bother going into the problems there.) But, I am learning some hard lessons along the way—mostly about the hostility of mobile phone carriers toward Internet usage. What I don't yet know is what to do about it, other than get along without it. Maybe we can come up with some fresh ideas.

My saga began when I went cheerfully to the nearest Orange store in Paris and spent 40 euros on a SIM card with prepaid phone service and 450Mb of data for Net access. When I stepped outside, I found that the data didn't work (no browsing, nothing from Google Maps), so I went back in and asked the saleswoman what was up. She told me to wait 24 hours. So I did. Still didn't work. When I went back to the store, a different salesperson told me he didn't understand the Android phone because Orange didn't sell it. So I went to another Orange store. They told me that only the first store could help me. I went back to the first one, and a different person there told me that he couldn't help me at all—and basically, to please leave. And I wasn't behaving badly (other than not knowing enough French).

The next day, my mood lifted during an excellent lunch with Henrik Moltke of Mozilla Drumbeat. Afterwards, Henrik kindly spent a couple hours with Orange on his own phone, trying to make data work for my Android. Finally it did, for a few minutes, after which the phone would only take calls, but no longer make any. So, I gave up while we spent the next week with friends on a boat we rode down canals through Lorraine and Alsace, at the far end of which I took time out from enjoying Strasbourg to submit my Android to the mercy of one more local Orange store. There, a young man who spoke good English gave me the low-down. “Just don't use data”, he said. “It's too expensive.” He also explained that I had somehow used up my 40 euros and needed to “recharge” the prepay deal. So I bought 35 euros worth of prepaid minutes and no more data. An hour later, the phone would only take calls, but not make any. One more check with an Orange store made it clear that I somehow had used up my fund again.

I spent the next week in the UK hanging with alpha geeks, including Kevin Marks, one of the prime movers behind both microformats and OpenSocial. After inspecting my settings, Kevin suggested that Twitter was to blame. Or rather, me. I had left on Twitter, which went on data hunts frequently. “Hitting the API uses a lot of data”, he said. “It's a lot more than the 140-character postings.”

Since then, I have discovered that 3G data over mobile connections is almost entirely a national affair. Buy 3G data access in one country, and you can't use it in another without risking enormous bills. This is even true in Europe, where the low hurdle to international phone dialing is entering national prefixes, and on many phones, that's automatic. But data is bizarre. It has national borders, like phone systems five decades ago. Responding to a blog post (blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2010/06/30/orange-crush) on my woes, Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald of Layar (a Netherlands-based augmented-reality app developed first for Android) commented, “seriously, this is an issue. I always use my local SIM while abroad. apart from the cost i mostly don't get past gprs/edge speeds as i am visiting on the network....The world is not flat for mobile subscriptions.”

At least my damage was limited to a couple prepaid funds that ran out. The risk is much higher for 3G customers who don't know they've stepped over a line. Look up 3G bill shock, and you'll get a half-million results, most with high-priced tales of woe. One, in the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/feb/21/broadband-dongle-roaming-bill-shock), tells of a £7,648.77 bill by Orange for a UK student using his 3G dongle in a normal way, but in France.

I still don't know why international companies like Orange, Vodaphone and T-Mobile have data “roaming” between their own national divisions, while phone roaming has no extra costs. Maybe the problem is regulatory. I don't know—yet. What I do know is that the Net over which Linux was developed, and on which it continues to mature, thanks to code contributions from all over the world, was not made to be fenced off this way. And there should be a limit to our tolerance of it.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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