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Off the Continent but Still Online

Staying Connected Overseas

Whether it's springtime in Sicily or Tuesday in Tokyo, there are a few things you can take for granted whenever you travel overseas. You won't be able to get your hometown paper delivered. Everything will be measured in metric units. Police sirens will sound downright alien. And you'll have no easy way to connect to the Internet--unless you read this article.

I can't do anything to help alleviate your culture shock when you travel abroad, but I can help you outfit your notebook so that no matter where you go, you'll be able to hop online in a matter of minutes to check your e-mail, your stocks, or your travel reservations for the trip home.

It takes a little bit of planning (and a little bit of spending), but staying connected overseas isn't as hard as you might think. I recently took a working vacation in Karlsruhe, a small city in Germany, with notebook in hand and a determination to check my e-mail every day. Although my experience was in Germany, the problems I encountered will crop up in any country off the North American continent, and the same solutions will apply. 

AC Power: If the Plug Don't Fit 

If there's any technical standard that you'd think would be ubiquitous, it's the good old power socket. Plug something into the wall--a computer, a hair dryer, or a toaster--and it works, right?

Wrong. Once you leave North America, you'll face two problems when using any AC-powered device: voltage and the plug itself.

North American AC power runs at 120 volts (120V), but elsewhere the current runs at speeds between 100V and 240V, with most countries standardized at 220V. Plugging a notebook computer designed for 120V into a 220V outlet could fry its circuitry.

If your notebook is less than five years old, its AC adapter is probably designed to handle multiple voltages. Check the tiny print on the adapter itself; you're safe if you see something like "Input 100-240V." Contact the manufacturer if you're not sure. If your notebook's AC adapter is stuck at 120V and the manufacturer doesn't offer a solution, you'll need a voltage converter (also known as a step-down transformer), which will cost about $40. 

The AC adapter for my Dell Inspiron 5000 notebook handled Germany's 220V power just fine. But I also wanted to take an external Zip drive with me, and the Zip's AC adapter could handle only 120V. The solution? Iomega sells an international AC adapter for about $20. 

Adaptors from around the world


Adapters from around the world (clockwise from top): Australian power, German/French power, French telephone, Italian power, British phone.

Whether your notebook can handle the voltage without help, you still need to plug it in. Outlets come in all shapes and sizes: There are about nine AC plug standards worldwide. The solution is a plug adapter for the country you're visiting. You can buy a single adapter for $10 to $13, or a kit containing assorted adapters for particular countries or continents. These kits also contain adapters for the country's telephone jacks. Which leads us to the next overseas wrinkle...

Modems: Don't Get Hung Up 

Let's start with some good news: Despite the claims of "international" modem manufacturers, you can use a standard U.S. modem anywhere in the world. There are some issues involved, but none are insurmountable. So don't run out and buy another modem.

The most important thing you need to know before you leave home is whether you'll be able to physically get at a phone jack in your hotel room. (Hotel phones are sometimes designed so that they cannot be unplugged.) Call ahead to find out what your situation will be. If you know you'll have access to a jack, you still have a problem: There are about 40 standard phone jacks in the world. Once again, the solution is an inexpensive adapter. The best way to buy adapters is in a "country pack" containing both AC and phone adapters.

If you know you won't have access to a jack, then you should consider purchasing an acoustic coupler. The device (a throwback to early modem technology) attaches to your modem and a phone, feeding data noise from the handset's speaker to the modem, and sending the modem's noise to the handset's microphone. Acoustic couplers run about $100, but they are handy, providing you with the flexibility to get online with any type of phone (think pay phones and mobile phones).

There are some other gotchas to keep in mind when you're dialing in a foreign land: 

Remove that check mark and your modem will stop listening for an American-style dial tone.


Remove that check mark, and your modem will stop listening for an American-style dial tone.
  • Many hotels use special digital PBX phone systems. The phone jacks look normal (for the country you're in), but if you plug a modem into a PBX system you'll get nothing at all--if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you'll get a fried modem. How do you know the hotel's phone line is safe? Use a line tester, a gadget you can buy for as little as $30. Or you can just use a phone: Take a small, standard phone with you, and plug it in at the hotel. If it works, so will a modem.
  • If your hotel has a PBX system, you can still use a modem if you also have a digital converter. These gadgets, which plug into the phone where the handset goes and then plug into the modem, cost about $150 to $170. They're easier to use and offer a faster connection than an acoustic coupler. While I was in Germany, I used TeleAdapt's Digital Connection digital converter. Once I got over the rather intimidating documentation (which leads you to believe you need to know the hotel's type of PBX system--you don't), it worked fine.
  • You also have to pay attention to dial tones. They vary from country to country, and your American modem might not recognize the dial tone somewhere else. (Then again, it might. My Dell's internal modem had no problem with the German dial tone, which sounded very different to my ears.) If your modem won't dial because it can't recognize a dial tone, tell it to stop listening for one: Open My Computer and double-click Dial-Up Networking. Right-click the icon for your dial-up connection and select Properties. On the General tab, click Configure, and then click the Connection tab. Uncheck "Wait for dial tone before dialing" and click OK twice. 
  • If you have to use an acoustic coupler or a digital converter, chances are you'll have to dial manually--one more reason not to worry about your modem recognizing the dial tone. Dialing manually is no big deal (you've done it all your life), but you need to tell Windows that that's what you want to do: Open My Computer and double-click Dial-Up Networking. Right-click your connection icon and select Properties. On the General tab, click Configure. Then click the Options tab. Check "Operator assisted for manual dial," and click OK twice. When you go online, you'll be prompted to dial manually.
So now you know how to get your modem hooked up. But which number do you call? That's our third problem...

Dialing: Who You Gonna Call? 

When you're home, getting online is simple: You call your Internet service provider's local access number. But which number do you call when you're in Paris, Beijing, or Timbuktu?

If you're lucky, your ISP offers global roaming through a company such as IPass (www.ipass.com/) or GRIC Communications. (www.gric.com/) These outfits work with ISPs around the world, giving each of them access to the others' dial-up numbers. It's easy enough to see if your ISP offers worldwide roaming--simply call up and ask.

And what do you do if the answer is no? If you travel a lot, consider signing up with an ISP that does offer roaming services. To find a list of American ISPs that have signed up with IPass, go to its Partners & Resellers page. (www.ipass.com/partners/isp-partners/united-states) GRIC has a similar list (www.gric.com/zone/isplocator/#co81) you can consult. When you find a local ISP, be sure to ask what it charges for roaming services; the charge can vary from a reasonable $4 a month to an outrageous $8 an hour.

Large providers such as America Online also have an international presence, although not always a spectacular one. For instance, AOL lists only three numbers for all of Germany. GRIC has that many numbers in Karlsruhe alone. 

Keep in mind that when you're staying in a hotel, there's no such thing as a free phone call. And in some countries, the phone company charges for local calls. So even if you have a local dial-up number, extended surfing could still be hazardous to your wallet.

Not a Jet-Setter? 

If international travel isn't a regular part of your life, changing ISPs probably isn't worth the hassle. If you travel only occasionally, bite the bullet and make that long-distance call to your own ISP. And no, special low overseas phone rates won't help; those generally apply only if you're calling from--or to--your own phone.

Expect to pay a dollar or more a minute if you go the long-distance route. Obviously, you're not going to be surfing the Web at that rate. But if you're just downloading and uploading e-mail that you read and reply to offline, you'll get by paying only a few dollars a day.

Where to Buy the Gadgets 

Several online retailers cater to the traveling computer user, international and otherwise. I looked at products from two such resellers, Road Warrior (www.roadwarrior.com/) and Teleadapt. (www.teleadaptusa.com/) (Other companies in the business include IGo (www.igo.com/) and Port.com. (www.port.com/) ) Both offer "nation" kits that contain a collection of plugs and adapters for any number of countries. The kits include a convenient case and range in cost from $25 to $50. You can also buy line testers, digital converters, acoustic couplers, and other devices discussed in this article at either site.

After stocking up on a few tools of the trade, you should be all set to venture forth into the great unknown, secure in the knowledge that the Net will be waiting for you when you get there.




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