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Getting Mobile Broadband Service in Italy

If you’re one of those people for whom switching off entirely – leaving the computer at home and only using the smart phone because that’s where your travel guide is these days – would be akin to torture, even on a so-called “vacation,” then this article is for you.
Finding reliable internet connectivity in Italy has long been problematic, and there’s very little free WiFi that isn’t password-protected (it’s a complicated – and silly – legal thing). In this guest post, Sebastian Harrison from Cellular Abroad offers a solution so that you can stay connected without spending a fortune.

As we become increasingly dependent on the internet and features such as email communication, web browsing, Skype, video and music downloading, and accessing social networks such as Facebook, it is difficult (if not impossible, for some) to imagine going to Italy and having no internet access, particularly if you use the internet for work or school.
While some people may feel that a vacation is not a vacation if you need to check emails or be on the internet, conversely, there are those who wouldn’t be able to go on vacation – or wouldn’t be comfortable doing so – if they couldn’t access the internet.
I recently returned from a 2 month trip to Italy and, thanks to my iPad and Blackberry, my business didn’t skip a beat. Although I travel to Italy at least once a year, it wasn’t until this trip that I was able to find a cost-effective and easy-to-use solution, giving me the peace of mind to enjoy my trip even more.
Before I talk about what I used, let’s look at some other possible solutions.

The US Solution (aka Billshock solution)

Until recently, the only ways for travelers to access the internet in Italy was to book a hotel with internet access (costly and not always an option in remote locations), hunt down wifi access at a café, or to go to an internet point. In some places, none of these options are available – at any price.
Several years ago, American cellular carriers such as T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T started offering data roaming through their smart phones or, if you wanted to use a computer, with an international data card that you could rent or purchase. Although checking your emails or logging into your Facebook account on your iPhone while enjoying a cup of coffee in beautiful Piazza Navona may sound intriguing, the harsh reality of the cost when the bill finally arrives is anything but pretty. Perhaps that what they mean by ugly American!
So what other choices are there for someone who needs internet access in Italy? Glad you asked. Let’s explore what options are available for accessing the internet through your cell phone, laptop or other similar devices.

The, “When in Rome, do as the Romans” Solution

Mobile broadband, similar to what is offered in the US or Canada, is available in Italy to the Italians and has been for several years. Coverage is excellent as is speed, at least with most providers. If you use your North American internet-ready device in Italy, such as your iPhone or Blackberry, you will be roaming and, particularly with some devices that are always automatically updating, you can incur a phone bill in the thousands even with very little usage. The best solution is to find an alternative to roaming. Italians, as we do, have access to the internet or cell phones and they are certainly not paying thousands of dollars a month to do so. As the adage states, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” Read on to learn how to do this.
>> To get up to speed, you might want to start with Sebastian’s article about how to get cellular service in Italy to start with.
Adding Data Service to a Mobile Phone
If you have an internet capable unlocked cell phone that works in Italy (must have the 900 and 1800 GSM bands), you can go to one of the three main cellular carriers – either TIM, Vodafone or Wind (there are others such as Tre but the coverage with is poor outside of the larger cities) – and add data service to the SIM card. While rates and the activation procedure differ from carrier to carrier, the basic procedures are similar. First, you purchase an Italian SIM card, add enough call credit for the data service, and then get data service activated. The SIM card will work for text messaging and voice right out of the package but you will need to wait for the new data plan to be activated. While there are various plans available, on average, for about €25 and perhaps a €5 activation fee you can get unlimited internet data access.
While this sounds simple enough, there are some caveats.
When you purchase a SIM card at a cell phone store, you need to make sure that enough credit is added to activate the service. There is the price of the activation plus the actual service. Usually, in order to activate the service, you need to call customer service and ask them to turn on the plan that you want – unlimited plans or others giving certain allotments of time. The main issue is that the service is not usually turned on immediately. It takes up to 24 hours for the service to start functioning. In the meantime, if you put the SIM card in your phone and start accessing data, while it will work, you will be using up the credit on your SIM card and then, when the carrier tries to activate the service, they won’t be able to as your credit will be burned up. Without the plan being activated, you can easily go through €25 of credit in minutes. So how do you know when the service is actually operational? You really don’t. The best way to be sure is to wait 24 hours.
Another caveat is that while usually the service is “auto configurante” or “self installing,” this is not always the case. While there is customer service available, I have found that it is often un-satisfactory. If you don’t speak Italian, that is certainly another hurdle. Still, for many, this affordable approach is a very good option in order to obtain data service on your cell phone. By the way, since you also get voice, your service will be similar to what you may be used to in the US or Canada – both voice and data accessibility on your cell phone for a reasonable fee.
Adding Data Service for your iPad
If you need service for your iPad, the procedure is virtually the same except for the fact that you will need a micro-SIM card and, if you need to call customer service in order to activate the SIM card, you cannot do so from your iPad. The best scenario is that you have a friend with a cell phone with the same carrier or, your own unlocked GSM cell phone as well as a micro SIM adapter. I personally experienced this issue and it was several days before I was able to resolve it.
Adding Data Service for your Laptop
If you plan on bringing your laptop, you can also purchase a USB modem and get service. Italian carriers have bundled deals – a certain amount of data and a USB modem. You can expect to pay $100-$150 unless you commit to a yearly plan. Usually the set-up instructions are in English as well as Italian so, with a bit of technical know-how, most people shouldn’t have a problem setting this up.

The Simple Solution (what I used)

Another solution, particularly for those who have other devices than a smartphone, iPad or PC – or who want something that works by just turning it on when you arrive in Italy – is to rent or buy a wireless broadband router (a MiFi) that includes unlimited data.
The MiFi is a cell phone-sized device that creates your own personal hotspot. Since the MiFi is portable and has a battery life of several hours (or about 24 hours of standby), you can literally put the MiFi in your pocket, backpack or purse and, virtually anywhere in Italy, you can access the web with any device that has wifi connectivity.
In addition, you can access as many as 5 different wifi-capable devices simultaneously. For example, you can be on your Mac checking emails while someone in the next room is logging on to Facebook with their iPad and while yet someone else is on their laptop using Skype.
While the convenience of multiple users is certainly an important feature, at least equally as important is the savings factor. Once you have the proper MiFi device – the version that works in all of Europe, including Italy – you can access unlimited data for about €25 per month. This is a perfect solution for frequent travelers or study abroad students. For tourists or other travelers who plan on visiting Italy for several weeks or less, the easiest option is just to rent a MiFi that already has been set up with an unlimited data plan for Italy. Cellular Abroad rents and sells the MiFi device with the data-enabled SIM card.

A Final Note

People’s needs and circumstances for internet are as diverse as their travel plans.
You might find that the café directly underneath the apartment you are staying in has free wifi.
Or you may discover, as I did, that there isn’t a café, hotel or internet point for miles around where you are staying – which, if you only need to access your emails periodically, might be adequate.
The point is, don’t just assume that your phone will work inexpensively in Italy as it does at home or that you can easily go to a Starbucks and get free internet – at least not yet.
photos, top to bottom, by: Il conte di Luna, Irish Typepad, jayneandd, googlisti, Cea.