Friday, July 5, 2013

Prepaid mobile plan? Don't forget the APN

Four years ago I used my Windows laptop, two years ago my Android tablet, this year my HTC One X smartphone. I'm talking about going away on holidays and surfing, writing, managing photos, all the things you might find yourself doing on a 6 week European break. Each time I go away I get by on less and less, because of course tablets, and now phones, have become so powerful.

This year we did Spain for two weeks, Ireland for two, Greece for two. And in each country I bought a SIM card from one of the main networks with enough data to allow me a modest amount of Internet access from my phone. Foursquare checkins, Google+, Twitter, and Facebook updates, a bit of the Guardian and The Irish Times, Google Maps, some Memrise and Duolingo practice (now they both finally have Android apps).

Despite working in IT and being used to rapid advances in tech, it's only when I get away to Europe biennially that I really feel like getting down on my knees and thanking the gods of modern telecoms. I like their work. You have to have experienced the frustration of trying to get things done in a Greek resort hotel guest computer (where to surf the Web you might have to do some general Windows troubleshooting first) to appreciate the embarrassment of riches (generous data allowance as standard, ubiquitous WiFi) we all enjoy today.

Ok, all is still not well in some beach bars (in Zakynthos island, where I stay in Greece) it has to be said. At half-time in the Lions vs. Australia game recently I thought I'd give my mobile data plan a break and use an actual desktop for a while. Put in my €2, the screen came to life, oh sweet jeebus it's Windows XP or something, anyway it's IE6 and that was the end of that. The first, the very first site I visited took one look at the browser and - maybe because this was Greece - went on strike. "Oh dear, your browser is no spring chicken..." announced seek.com. I managed to hustle my €2 back but I was shaken.

But overall, things are good. For the price of a freduccino in a taverna you can usually avail of the house WiFi. You may have to strategically position yourself within line-of-sight of the house's router due to seismological considerations (in Taverna βαρδιόλα, a favourite of mine here in Lithakia, Zakynthos, the owner boasts of his earthquake-proof 60cm-thick walls). But hey - you're on holidays! Things, the Earth's crust for instance, are different here!

There is one thing, however, that I'd like to talk about that may catch you out if you bring your phone abroad. It caused me a problem in Spain, and still wasted a small amount of my time in Greece (I was on to it by then). That's the issue of APNs.

An Access Point Name (APN) is the name of a gateway between the mobile network and the net, so it's kind of important. Upon arrival in a new country, when you go to get set up with a SIM card you'll need to manually set up an APN (on my phone it's in Settings > Mobile data > Access point names) for the mobile provider you've signed up with. Without it you can make calls and get SMSes, but you won't be able to connect to the net to surf or use your apps, etc. So, clearly something you need.

But you won't be surprised to find out that this information is not universally known to those whose job it is to know it. At least not to the Movistar guys in Eixample, Barcelona, who let me leave the shop mystified (them and me) as to why I couldn't get net access. In Movistar shops they have an expert's corner, el rincón del Gurú, to help the likes of me, but sadly the Eixample guru was awol that day so I was referred to their Plaça de Catalunya superstore. On entering which I learned the minimum wait for a Gurú would be 90 minutes. At that stage it would have been quicker to attain enlightenment with a good old-fashioned guru up a good old-fashioned mountain.

I didn't really mind going to the Plaça - we would have gone there anyway - but we were beginning to traipse. This ill-defined activity, usually performed with children and a long-suffering significant other, sucks the lifeblood out of holiday magic times involving as it does pointless, tentative detours and digressions to achieve some ridiculous goal. And it was ridiculous, I belatedly realised, because I am a guru: I work in IT, I know my phone, I've done this before.

I had to manually enter an APN the last time I was in Greece and set up my Android tablet to get net access. Damn it, I know what the problem is. I didn't need no stinkin' Gurú, I just needed WiFi, which I could get back at our flat. All I had to do was Google "Movistar APN" and I'd get the 4 or 5 data (the APN, its name, MCC, MNC...) I needed. Which I did, whereupon I was connected.

In Ireland two weeks later the guy in Meteor did this for us as part of the set-up, but in Greece two weeks after that, dealing with Cosmote, we lost a little more time due to the APN issue again. I put this down mainly to the fact that our dealings with the Cosmotians were in Greek, naturally enough, which I don't speak nearly well enough to intervene in the set-up process, and I hadn't come up with strategy I now recommend: once the SIM is working in your phone, go to the nearest WiFi-enabled café and get the APN there.

Don't bother wasting your time asking them in the shop, it can only suck up more time. Time spent in a mobile phone service provider shop is called purgatory: time spent in a chic café people-watching, frappé-quaffing, and experiencing real IT satisfaction by sorting your phone out - you, yourself! - is holiday magic time.