Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems
Question: I'm taking the family to Florida this Easter. But the kids use their phones for Wi-Fi non-stop and are already asking questions. I know you can use your phone no problem in the EU, but what's the best way of getting Wi-Fi in America? I've looked it up and some of the services seem to cost a fortune.
There are a few ways you can do it, although most of them are pricey. The ones I'll focus on deal purely with data, so they won't let you make or take calls on your mobile cellular number (although you can using FaceTime, WhatsApp or Messenger).
One solution that might work is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device set up specifically for multiple phones, tablets or laptops.
I recently had a chance to test out one of these gadgets, called the Skyroam Solis (from Skyroam.com). It's a circular orange disc with a built-in Sim card that works in most countries in the world. Once set up and switched on, it connects up to five devices at the same time, using the local mobile network as the Wi-Fi source. I used it for a week in the US, travelling between urban and rural areas.
It costs €150 for the device (to keep) and a further €8 per day for "unlimited" data to five phones or devices. For a week, that would amount to just over €200. If you're staying longer, there's an €80 monthly option that would work out cheaper (meaning a maximum of €230, even if you use it non-stop for 30 days).
In theory, this might make financial sense if there are five (or more) of you - working out at €40 to €50 per person for the trip. For fewer people, it starts to look more expensive unless you plan on reusing it for a subsequent trip. (Obviously there's no need to in the EU since most roaming fees within Europe are now gone.)
I switched it on first thing in the morning and powered it off last thing at night. It never really came close to running out of battery, partially because it has a large 6,000mAh reserve - probably enough to keep going two days straight without being recharged.
However, it was a little tricky to set up. I needed to revert to the online helpdesk, which (quickly) resolved an unusual issue it had.
It also seemed slow at times: it was only when I looked at the small print that I discovered "unlimited" data means 0.5GB per day, after which Skyroam purposely "throttles" (slows) the speeds. For one person, this may not be a big issue but for a family, it may well be - you could end up with a lot of buffering.
As for reception, it generally worked fine in urban areas and was less reliable in rural parts. This probably only reflects the availability of mobile networks, though, something that any mobile solution will face.
There are alternative solutions. If one of you happens to have an iPad with LTE (4G) built in, you can usually get a cheap deal from one of the local operators for that iPad. I have, on multiple occasions, availed of special offers typically offering 5GB of data for $10, exclusive to iPad LTE subscribers (first from T-Mobile, then from GigSky). You don't have to set this up in advance, either -you'll see the competing offers once you've landed in the US and go into your iPad's 'mobile data' settings. Once set up, you can then use your iPad as a mobile hotspot for other devices to use as a Wi-Fi source.
Obviously, the limitation here is the amount of data you get on these special deals. If one or more of your kids watches YouTube or videos on Snapchat, you'll get through that data in a day or two. Personally, I used to buy a prepay phone in the US, load it up with data credit and use that as a mobile hotspot for my actual phone and tablet or laptop.
That typically cost me about $60 for the phone (any old cheap Android they were selling would do) and another $60 or so for about 6GB or 7GB of data. However, while this is okay for one person, it's awkward to set up (registering your prepaid phone's credit in the US without a local address can be challenging). It's also a very inefficient use of the data as the prepaid phone itself uses up chunks of it, so you waste a fair bit of data meaning you reach the 5GB or 7GB limit much quicker than you normally would.
Lastly, there is often (though not always) a ceiling on the amount of data you can purchase, typically around 12GB. That might sound like a lot, but it's not using this type of set-up. I have burned through more in a week, just with my own devices.
Obviously, there is the option of limiting the kids' phones in the first place, perhaps to fixed locations with free Wi-Fi. This varies from place to place in the US, although your hotel or rental property should have free Wi-Fi. Cafés such as Starbucks have it, too. In practice, this might cause tension too though - it's not hard to see as trophy teenager campaigning to stay in the hotel so they can stay connected to their friends. I'm assuming you've already considered this route and thought better of it from your enquiry to these pages.
Recommendation: Skyroam Solis (€150 from Skyroam.com plus €8 per day for "unlimited" data, throttled after 0.5GB per day)
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