“SIM Card? SIM Card? We don’t need no stink’n SIM Card” – Anonymous, 2015
Well, the title is not exactly accurate. We have had a phone but it has been provisioned for Wi-Fi use only – no SIM card, no cell network coverage, no phone bill. What joy we experienced calling our friends at AT&T 11 months ago and informing them that we would no longer be needing their services. We parked our number with a service that forwards voicemail and text messages for a few bucks (there are many but we have used NumberBarn) and disconnected from any telecom services.
Just as satisfying was the call with Comcast where we delivered a similar message. We were frankly a bit late in “cutting the cord” and this trip was just the impetus we needed to say “good-bye and good riddance”.
It has now been 11 months that we have been using Wi-Fi as our only means of communicating and connecting to the inter-webs….and it has been great. Around the world, Wi-Fi is pervasive, mostly fast, and free – for the most part. We use it for voice calls, messaging, watching movies, travel planning, web browsing and of course, blogging. No surprises there – but what surprised us is how good the experiences have been around the world (of course, with a couple exceptions).
It has been fun to use our year of travel to experiment with exclusive Wi-Fi use without any cellular connectivity. Especially because my career focus prior to this trip involved deep research of Wi-Fi usage around the world and helping both large companies such as AT&T and Vodafone as well as investors on Wall Street understand the growing usage of Wi-Fi networks and its impact on traditional telecom business models.
Without a doubt, we can confidently say that our experience has been fantastic. With very few exceptions, we have been able to do everything we have needed to do using Wi-Fi and compromised little (although, we acknowledge that our travel can change the type of daily connectivity and communication needed). We have used Skype (still one of the best) as our primary app for voice calls and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for messaging.
Our minor issues:
- Contact on the fly. This is our common use case back home for all the reasons that you can imagine and primarily for connecting with folks on the fly and talking from the car (hands-free, of course). We have not had to deal with this too much while traveling.
- On a couple group cycle rides, it would have been helpful to connect with folks with a traditional mobile phone but we managed to find free Wi-Fi hotspots that worked out.
- We rolled the dice a bit with a couple weeks of road-tripping in the middle of nowhere South Africa and some cycling out in French farmlands where we would have needed cellular access in case of any emergencies or break-downs – but we avoided both.
- For the most part, we schedule calls when we need or want to chat with folks.
- Authentication. Many websites and mobile apps and Wi-Fi services like to use text messages as a means to authenticate and validate users. Given the decrease in SMS text messaging and the increase of chat apps such as Whatsapp and WeChat, most of the good services offer an alternative, most commonly e-mail, but there are still a few out there that require a phone with cellular service (that should change quickly). In most cases when we have faced this issue, we have been at an airport or trying to use free municipal services (as example in St. Gervais and Megeve France).
- On the fly, mobile navigation. We thought this would be a bigger problem that it really has been. But it has not been an issue – mostly because Google has improved their mobile apps quite a bit over the last few years and they are really good. We take snapshots and screen shots of maps and navigation routes; we download and cache maps and use the GPS services of our phone. This has worked really well. We haven’t spent a lot of times in cars though where sometimes the cellular access can help. We have had built-in nav included in some rental cars in Europe and we did buy a cheap portable nav system in South African road trip (that I tried to pawn at the end but that is a story for another post).
- On the fly, point of interest location. Again, we were surprised here. The Trip Advisor app provides a good way to download city guide information so that you can have access to restaurants and other points of interest when you are offline.
The Wi-Fi experience around the world differs, as you can imagine, but here is our experience
- The Good (Really the Great)
- Asia is the gold standard for Wi-Fi internet access – at least, in the countries where we visited. On this trip, Asian countries included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam. Free access is everywhere – airports, hotels, restaurants, bars, train and bus stations as well as on trains and buses, and even at gas or petro stations. It was free everywhere and bandwidth was plentiful. We never had issues here.
- South and Central America was also great. Although, not quite as pervasive as Asia, Wi-Fi access was fast and free and always available at hotels and in restaurants. And airports generally have decent free access (with some exceptions such as Cusco, Peru as an example).
- We also found a handful of locations in South America, such as Lima, where there was free Wi-Fi available in urban neighborhoods.
- The (not so) Bad
- Europe was and continues to be good. Access in restaurants and bars is limited but that is not always such a bad thing. Hotels are mostly free now, where in the past it was often only a Pay-for model.
- Most airports in Europe offer free services but we have run into many bandwidth issues with the free services in many locations. And there is still a Pay-for premium model (for more bandwidth) that exists. Although, if you need good access, it is usually available.
- In France, we had some disappointment with limited availability or SMS only authentification at bus stations, some train stations, and in cities but the fact that free Wi-Fi is even available in some of the small villages was a bit of a surprise. Orange seems to be lurking about in many small villages with a 5 euro/hr offer.
- And the Ugly
- South Africa, by far, was the worst experience. There is a Pay-for-MB model that is still very much in place. Many public spots, such as hotels and restaurants, will give you free access but most will not. Apartments, such as those found on Airbnb, will often charge guests. This was one of only two spots in the world where we paid for Wi-Fi access – it was about $5USD per day for unlimited usage – which is a lot more than most of the world and enough to make you change your daily activity (although not too much at the end of the day).
- Japan was the second spot where we paid for access. We were only at the airport during our initial flight over from the States so not sure that counts:>. But we needed access to tie up some loose ends on our exit and there was no free access available.