Wireless communications while traveling in the U.S. – the good and the bad

I thought I would share some of the good and bad wireless experiences I’ve had while traveling in the U.S. this month. Maybe it will be helpful for other travelers.

Quite Good – AT&T

I know it’s fashionable to bash AT&T but I have never had anything but good customer service and good connections with them. And this trip, things seem to have gotten even better.

First, prepaid data contracts for iPads have gotten much simpler and less expensive. I have a SoftBank iPad 2, which is compatible with the AT&T network. And I have a SIM card from my last trip, which I used with my iPad 1. I put it in my iPad 2 before leaving Japan and the iPad 2 recognized it. I called AT&T and they said if the SIM card is recognized it is good to go. So I signed up for a pre-paid package, and, as promised, as soon as I arrived at O’Hare the iPad 2 worked and the number changed to the one assigned for my package.

If you don’t already have a SIM card they are now just $4.95 (they were $25 three years ago). Also 3 years ago I needed to pay an activation fee, but this time they have proper pre-paid data packages with no activation charge.

The speed has been excellent, considering the iPad 2 just runs on 3G.

A note: I estimated I would need about 4 GB of data during my trip, but it turns out that so far I’ve only used 300 MB of data while out and about, even when using Google Maps for navigating a lot in the car. So you might find you don’t need as much cellular data as you think if there are wi-fi hot spots available. In my case, my sister’s apartment and my mother’s place both have wi-fi. I’m sure that helped. Also the Amtrak between Boston and NYC has free wi-fi.

And another positive note about AT&T – my phone. I can’t use my iPhone 5 in the U.S. because it is SIM-locked to AU, my carrier in Japan. So I bought a $12 GoPhone at Walgreens and signed up for AT&T’s $2/day unlimited talk and text package. It is just a plain phone, but works great, and AT&T customer service has been there for me every time I had a question about setting up voicemail, etc. I think it’s a real bargain for travelers. It’s completely anonymous too; you just buy a prepaid card and use the code to get set up. They don’t do that in Japan anymore (they are worried about criminal abuse). But in the U.S. it seems anything goes. So any foreign traveler can get very inexpensive telecommunications in the U.S.

So yes, I am pleased with AT&T’s service. So much so I would recommend them to my sister who is thinking of getting an iPhone.

Quite Useless – Boingo

I only signed up for Boingo (the wi-fi hot spot service) for two reasons: (1) They have a $4.95/month special for the first three months and if you stick through 3 pay periods you get a $25 Amazon gift card – so they are paying me to use their service; (2) O’Hare apparently doesn’t have free wi-fi.

But except for O’Hare I have not found a single Boingo hot spot anywhere on my trip. Not even at Penn Station in New York City!

So my recommendation is to not bother with them.

Fairly Good – Google Maps

Getting around Boston can be … difficult. I rented a car once some years ago and asked the rental agent for a map. She handed it to me and said, “Here. But it won’t help you.”

I didn’t drive – I left that to my sister. But even though she’s been here 30 years she doesn’t always seem to know the best way to get from A to B.

Google Maps can be really a life saver, when it works right. Most of the time (75% of the time maybe) it gets “chatty” and really guides you along. Turn right in 3/4 of a mile at Boylston. Slight left in 300 feet onto Commonwealth. Turn right (like right now!) onto Beacon.

But about 25% of the time Google Maps goes silent on you and I don’t know why and it can be very unhelpful in that case, trying to figure out where you should go next. And sometimes it says “turn south” which as anybody with a bad sense of direction knows is as useless as no instruction at all.

So I would give Google Maps a 75% for navigation assistance.

The worst – Apple Maps

Utterly and completely useless for navigating Boston streets. No guidance, nothing useful on the screen. A rating of 0%. Load Google Maps if you need some guidance. Don’t even waste your time with Apple Maps.

Basically I have felt “connected” while in the U.S., without great cost, and without any technical problems. So while the wireless infrastructure is not as fast as in Japan, the prices and conveniences are right.

It would have been nice to have a SIM-free iPhone though. Maybe next time. And maybe an iPad Air next time too!

AppleCare protection plan less expensive in Japan right now

The AppleCare protection plan for the MacBook Pro is slightly less expensive in Japan right now than in the U.S. because of changing yen/dollar rates.

In the U.S. it’s $249 which is ¥25,452. In Japan it’s ¥24,800.

I always get the protection plan because 100% of everything I’ve ever bought from Apple needs repairs. My theory is they create these wonderfully-designed devices in spotless high-tech clean rooms and then throw the parts out into some dark, Chinese back alley where low-wage children put them together with glue.

So I’m going ahead and getting it before my trip to the U.S.

Good for Tim Cook

At a shareholders meeting on Friday, CEO Tim Cook angrily defended Apple’s environmentally-friendly practices against a request from the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) to drop those practices if they ever became unprofitable.

NCPPR put forward a shareholder’s proposal asking Apple to disclose how much it spends on sustainability programs. If those costs detracted from Apple’s bottom line, the NCPPR demanded that Apple discontinue the programs and commit only to projects that are explicitly profitable. Cook apparently became angry at the group’s request. According to an account from MacObserver:

What ensued was the only time I can recall seeing Tim Cook angry, and he categorically rejected the worldview behind the NCPPR’s advocacy. He said that there are many things Apple does because they are right and just, and that a return on investment (ROI) was not the primary consideration on such issues.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.

He didn’t stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Staying connected when in the US

I’ve been going back and forth in my mind about the best way to “stay connected” when in the U.S. next month. Any suggestions from friends in the US, particularly in the Boston area?

When I’m at my sister’s apartment it’s no problem. She has a decent (for the U.S.) Comcast connection in her apartment.

Otherwise, I’m not sure what to do while outside and wonder what peoples’ thoughts are about these:

1. Boingo.com has a $4.98/month deal for 3 months that supposedly gives access to “thousands of wifi spots” around the U.S. and an app that points to even more free ones. Ever use that before?

2. I have thought about selling my iPad 4 wifi + iPad 2 cellular + iPad 1 and getting an iPad Air. Then I could get a T-Mobile SIM card which gives 200 MB/month free data for life, plus I could get a 1 month no commitment contract and use the tethering feature of the iPad Air and it could be my mobile hotspot.

But then I’m stuck with a 2 year cellular commitment in Japan (there are no no-commitment contracts here). With data sharing not expensive, but money is money. And I’m a bit “new gadget weary.” Believe it or not, that is possible, even for me. ;)

3. I could bring my older iPad 2 with me and get a no-commitment contract for that. No tethering, or 4G, but at least I would have some means of communication while out.

4. I could buy an inexpensive mobile hotspot (they have some refurbished ones for as low as $44 at the T-Mobile site) and get a one month contract and carry that around. Anybody have experience with those?

5. I could stay unconnected when out and about. Not reachable by email or text or phone. (!)