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!


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