I haven’t told this story before, but it’s still a relevant story today.
Just before I went to climb Kilimanjaro and safari in the Serengeti back in 2007 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t want me to cancel my trip, I didn’t want to be out of touch. That posed a bit of a problem. My phone at the time was a basic Nokia clamshell that ran on a single TDMA frequency. But I knew that it wouldn’t operate out of the country. So what should I do, get a satellite phone?
I did a little research and learned that Tanzania had recently extended their GSM Edge-compatible network into the parks, mainly because it turned out cheaper and easier to deploy new cell towers than it did to build wired networks to connect their ranger stations. Great, so all I needed was a GSM phone.
I knew that the iPhone had just been announced that week, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. It didn’t seem like something I’d want. But as it turned out, when I was at my AT&T store trying to find a GSM phone that operated on the right network frequencies, that iPhone that had been just become available the day before was the only phone they had that operated on the frequencies used in Tanzania. They had exactly one 4GB model left, so I purchased it.
Funny thing is, in updating my home and business phones this past week, I faced a similar question. My contract with AT&T was again over, I could add my mom to my family plan and give her my old iPhone 3GS, but did I really want to stay on AT&T? I still travel outside the country a lot. Could I switch to Verizon?
The answer, as it turns out, is “yes, but I might not like the solution.” The simpler solution is to buy a simple unlocked GSM phone and buy a SIM card in the country I’m traveling in and keep my iPhone’s cell and data access off when I’m overseas. Exactly the solution I thought I was going to have to use back in 2005. (Why did the iPhone work in 2005 and I avoid it overseas now? Changes in pricing, mainly. I was able to get a deal to roam Kenya with the stock iPhone at reasonable rates back then; no similar deal exists today that I know of. I had to turn my iPhone on recently overseas to receive one text message, which ended up costing me more than US$30, even with the AT&T International plan in effect. No thank you.)
If you travel outside your country, you need to pay attention to what happens when you leave it with your phone. That’s pretty much been true from day one of cellular, but it remains true to the this day. First, it might not work at all. Second, it might need to be unlocked and reset to an alternate system. Third, you need to pay careful attention to costs, even if you have an International roaming plan.
This is especially true if you want to push any photos down the cellular pipe when you're traveling. Let me tell you, sending D800 photos down cellular data paths is a big no-no while traveling. The perfect solution isn't well established yet, but here's how it should work (see also Gear Where you Are):
- Take you photos with a WiFi enabled camera (or EyeFi card).
- A mobile device with plenty of storage (e.g. 64GB iPad) temporarily warehouses them, and allows you to delete and probably also enter IPTC data and rename.
- When you hit a trusted WiFi connection, the mobile device connects and moves the images to your cloud storage facility.
- Your cloud storage facility automatically sends a copy to your office computer (nest), where your photo handling product of choice (e.g. Aperture, Lightroom) automatically puts it into the database. Better still, if #2 had a tagging system and #4 had a tagging recognition system, tagged photos could be sent to your social sites (Facebook, Google+, Flickr, whatever) or other places (blog, Web gallery, etc.) automatically, as well.
But we can't do that without a lot of mix-and-match products and a lot of extra elbow grease right now. Pity, as the first company to solve this well is in a position to be the photographer's go to company.
Now here’s the funny part: I got some of the best Internet access I’ve ever had on an iPhone sitting in camps late each afternoon on the side of Kilimanjaro. First, the cell towers tended to be near the camp locations because the ranger stations were nearby, too. Second, I don’t think anyone else on the mountain was actually using the data side of the network—I was basically getting full attention and speed from the tower, something I’ve only gotten one other time (also in a far away location). Talk about your four bars.