Internet Access while Travelling

Access to the internet for travellers.

Travel outside the reach of the fixed landline phone system in Australia makes internet access much more difficult, or even totally impossible. The dream of seamless wireless access while on the road is just a dream, with the hype factor far exceeding actual cost effective practical methods that work reliably (or even at all).

We generally find we have enough email and the like that we want to be able to use our own computers, with our own favourite software, to deal with it while travelling. Internet cafes and restricted function devices like PocketMail just don't work well enough.

Regular Phone Service, at home

The regular phone system works fine at home, and when travelling in major cities and staying in some hotel. Outside that, problems occur.

Regular Phone Service, Business Travel

One solution is to only travel business class, and stay where hotels and motels all have a phone in the room. With a little luck, the phones will have a data jack. With less luck, they have an RJ11 (standard USA plug) socket in the wall. In some countries, the standard plug is of a different variety, such as 600 and 610 plugs used until recently in Australia, or the strange inline ones used in New Zealand. Adaptors are often available in Radio Shack and other electronics store.

You should note that some digital switchboards in hotels generate higher than standard voltages. These can burn out older style modems, expecially PCMCIA modems. You can buy testers from IBM, and some tech travel stores. Many modern modems can handle digital voltages without being damaged (however you may still not be able to actually connect a modem successfully via a digital exchange). Most hotels in Australia do not understand what you are saying when you ask about whether they have a digital switchboard.

On a recent (2003) country trip, our modems could not cope with two out of three motel switchboards.

Konexx (and others) make a small, one ounce US$39 modem minder, to protect your modem against damage from digital switchboards. They also make a seven ounce US$149 battery powered mobile konnector, to provide analog connectivity using most office or hotel digital phone systems. Previously

Finding your local ISP can be a problem. The best list I know was at This will find you an ISP for any phone area in Australia, and has good search routines by phone area and keywords, as well as lists by state.

Kim Davies has produced an excellent article for travellers in Australia who want to use their computers while travelling. Check

Rural Travel

It is sometimes possible to persuade caravan parks where you are staying to allow you to connect your computer to their fax line for a short time.

Konexx make a battery powered US$149 acoustic coupler called the Koupler, that connects to the RJ11 phone jack on your computer modem, and attaches by a Velcro (TM) strap to the handpiece of a public phone. The 9 ounce (255 gram) device runs for up to 35 hours on a standard 9 volt alkaline battery. Baud rates upto 26 kbps are possible, but 2400 to 4800 bps are more likely on public phones. Size is 190 x 50 x 45 mm. Available from several suppliers, around US$130, including

Connect Globally, mobile computer solutions at including a 9 volt battery powered acoustic coupler for US$99, from your modem output to phone. Refer telecoupler.

Targus Surelink acoustic coupler CM0400 runs 15 hours on a battery. Priced at US$114 at Yahoo.

Tandy still have an acoustic modem 260-1179 listed in their support database, but it is obsolete, US Bell 103 standard only and very slow (300 baud).

Power connections overseas can be a bit of a problem. You can find a list of what voltages and connectors different countries use at

Internet Cafes

Low tech by wireless standards, but Internet Cafes are the easiest solution for some tasks. In Australia they are wide spread, even sometimes in very small country towns. Check first for the local library, which is often also the Post Office, general store, etc. We have also found them often in Council buildings, Tourist Information centres, and sometimes in newsagencies. Prices often appear to be subsidised, however they may be pretty busy with locals using them.

The software provided in Internet Cafes can be very limited. You can assume they will be using a Windows PC (I've seen only one using iMacs) and will have a fairly standard Windows 9x or XP install. While some have some Office applications, many only have Windows, and nothing else installed.

Check whether the floppy drives actually work before you get into the middle of some download that you want to save. Make sure you have some utility on floppy to split files onto multiple floppies, if you ever do large downloads. Many PCs no longer have floppies, which makes taking material with you difficult. USB disks may be a solution here.

Google directory can provide a list of sites that list cybercafes. Also try or

Email via Web Browsers

I am not in favour of having my email address changed to a web site such as Hotmail, or many of the other web access points for email. I would prefer to retain my standard POP3 mail accounts at the suppliers I want to use.

You can access almost any POP3 based mail service for free via a web browser at This does not require that you sign up with Mailstart in advance, so you can use it on an ad hoc basis. You will need to know the actual login name of your mailbox (which may not be the same as your mail alias), and the real address of your mail server (these will be somewhere on your existing computer email software). This allows only one access a week (for $5 a year you can get unlimited access).

You can access almost any POP3 based mail service for free via a web browser at This does not require that you sign up with Mail2PDA in advance, so you can use it on an ad hoc basis. You will need to know the actual login name of your mailbox (which may not be the same as your mail alias), and the real address of your mail server (these will be somewhere on your existing computer email software).

Mailstart and Mail2Pda accept your login name and password, goes to your mailbox, downloads a copy of your mail, and formats it as web pages. Their FAQ and privacy policies seem to cover most questions you may have. Naturally Mailstart can not access non-standard proprietary based mail services such as AOL and MSN. Unless you delete your mail, Mailstart just takes a copy from your mail server. Mailstart and Mail2Pda do not store any of your mail, nor do they record your login or password. It does not use a secure connection, as the POP3 sessions must be sent in clear, and an SSL connection would just give a false sense of security. Mail2Pda will use SSL connections, if you request this. Naturally it does not handle attachments, as these would have to be stored on its servers for decoding. Mailstart will attempt to set a cookie, but this does not have to be accepted.

If the Internet cafe you are using only has Internet Explorer 5 available, remember to disable "AutoComplete". This is under Tools, Internet Options, Content tab. Otherwise IE5 will remember your login name and password and present them to the next user (try to persuade Internet cafes not to use such insecure software).

Cellular Phones

In countries with GSM cellular phones, it is relatively easy to connect a computer or PDA via phone, albeit it at only 9600 bps. However, in Australia, many locations are out of cellular range. The phones cover 90%-95% of the population, not of the area!

Connecting a Psion 5 organiser via IrDA to an Ericsson SH888 mobile phone with built in data adaptor ("modem") via Telstra Mobile Net was dead easy (took about two minutes). It worked for email, web access and fax, and I didn't need to make special arrangements with Telstra (in some countries you need to have data or fax enabled specially by the phone company).

A five week test trip in North West Queensland left us out of range in all except two towns, so cellular just isn't a practical solution. Unlike analog, you can't boost the range of GSM by using a decent external antenna. It basically stops at about 30 kilometres. GSM makes a very good fit to cities (where most of the users are), where the problem for the phone companies is to make the cell sizes much smaller, so they can handle the number of calls. CDMA is more suitable as a replacement for an analog phone in country areas, however so far the new CDMA network is not data enabled, nor does the range seem to match the initial promises.

Roaming overseas with the GSM cellular phone is also easy to arrange via your phone network - except in the USA, which uses a different system. Naturally, that is our usual destination.


Pocket Science's hand held organiser with an acoustic coupler, for cennecting to a public phone handset. The USA version has a nationwide 1800 number, and charge about US$10 a month for access. Email length is limited, I believe. Australian version is highly similar. The Australian web site crashes my browser.

Satellite Phones

Most also have a CDMA, analog, GSM or other cellular component for cheaper calls when in range of terrestrial towers.


Available in Australia mid 2000 via Vodaphone. About $2000-$3000 for Ericcson R290, $1300 to $2370 for Telit SAT550 phone, fairly high per minutes charges ($2.08 to $3.31), and high use patterns expected. Data is not yet available. Phones revert to GSM in regular call areas. Reports from the USA are very encouraging. Funds available to Globalstar reported to be about US$250M mid 2000, burn rate over US$100M per quarter. About 48 low earth orbit satellites at about 900 miles altitude. Looks like this one has a good chance. In October 2000 I heard Globalstar had started drawing on a US$250 million line of credit from Chase Manhatten. Guarantees include Lockheed Martin. Globalstar need to raise US$160 million by northern Spring. Still advertising in mid 2001 and late 2003. Chapter 11 protection February 2002.


Chapter 11 in 2000, 9.6 kbps data rate. Expected around end of 2000, if it survives.


Low earth orbit satellite phone, low data rate of 2400 bps when data available. Chapter 11 reported in 2000, and I'm not really expecting it to survive. Reported sold for a song in late 2000, with some revival now expected.


Satellite phone only. Inmarsat I-3. About A$7000 for the fairly large phone, but 64 kbps data capability. Mid level orbit satellites, I believe. Immarsat I-4 details due for mid 2000 release, with three new satellites, x10 capacity, 432kbps, launches expected to start around 2003. The prices seem a bit high for casual internet contact, unless you really need it for business. I have a suggestion to see if the phones for the previous version are still available at better prices.

Email Account Information

When travelling, you need both your own email account information, and you will also need to know the SMTP (Outward) email server on whichever computer you are using.

In Netscape, Edit, Preferences, Mail and Newsgroups, Mail Servers lists the Outgoing Mail Server.

In Outlook Express, Tools, Accounts, Mail, Properties, Servers tab.

In Eudora Light 3, Tools, Options, Personal Info, under SMTP.

United States specific notes

The USA has not adopted the cellular phone standards used in most of the world. This is partly because many systems were installed before the standards existed, and partly because there is military radio on some of the frequencies used elsewhere for GSM mobile phones. As a result, USA solutions for wireless communications often do not work anywhere else, and the reverse also applies (GSM is scarce, for example, rather than the standard). Unlike in Australia, cellular providers tend not to be nationwide, so arranging roaming can be a problem, rather than totally automatic.

USA data connection systems can include data over analog cellular, which I think they call Circuit Switched cellular or CSC (analog has been closed down as obsolete in Australia). Upgrades using the same towers but new equipment include Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) and Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). There are also a few GSM systems (reputed to be 17 providers in 2500 towns). There is also considerable development of local wireless systems such as Ricochet (SF, Seattle and a few other areas - but now bankrupt) and Ardis (some eastern states), but these seem not to be countrywide. Some two way paging services offer an email options, such as Bell South with the Research in Motion Ltd BlackBerry pager.

Mark Sedenquist has been on the road with his office in a mobile home in North America since 1996. His Roadtrip America site has some interesting articles and pointers to how he tries to connect in the USA.

Free ISPs

There was a good list of free ISPs at

Mobile IP Address considerations

Computers need an IP (Internet Protocol) number to connect to the internet. In the past, most had a fixed IP number, and some administrative work needed to be done to keep track of IP numbers assigned. In the mid 1990's, many networks and most ISPs started using DHCP to automatically provide addresses from a fixed range when a computer connected to a network. This eased many administrative concerns, and let a large pool of infrequently connected computers share a smaller pool of scarce IP numbers. Since most such computers did not automatically receive packets, they did not need a fixed IP (unlike routers, email servers and web servers, etc.)

Mobile phones complicate this, as you need to identify the phone (so the correct messages go to it). You could identify the phone by other means, or use IP tunnelling, but it may well be better if phones have their own IP address. Therefore dynamic addresses are not as suitable in phones. One solution is Mobile IP, described in simple terms in The real nitty gritty unreadable details are in RFC2002 and also RFC2003 to 2006.

Shops stocking travel equipment

Connect Globally
Mobile computer solutions, including a 9 volt battery powered acoustic coupler for US$99, from your modem output to phone. Refer telecoupler.
Extreme Computing
Various travel computers, including wearable computer equipment, and cyborg gear.
Walkabout Travel Gear
A wide range of mobile gear, including digital line testers, digital converters. They also have some good articles on the problems a traveller may have with compatibility from country to country.

Other Travel Information Sites

Current Solutions
Guide to voltage specifications, adaptors and frequencies in different countries.
I hope you have enjoyed