Not too long ago, going to Africa meant disappearing from the world. Not anymore. Africa may still be the least developed continent, but its way more connected than most people think. If you play your cards right, its possible to be connected nearly 24/7 in even the most remote villages.

Seeing as staying connected is one of the things that makes me happy, I’ve pretty much got the system down. It took me quite a while to work out the kinks, though. So, for the benefit of anyone traveling to more remote areas, I’d like to share my system here. Techie details and all.

1. The cell phone

The first thing I do in every country is buy a local sim card and get a local number. There’s often a few networks to choose from, so first ask around and figure out which one is best (which I judge by which one has the best coverage and the most number of users, since calls are always cheaper between users on the same network). My personal suggestions are: Safaricom in Kenya (Zain is also reliable though not as popular), Vodacom in Tanzania (Zain is also decent), Zain in Malawi and Zambia, MTC in Namibia, and Vodacom in South Africa (MTN is also popular). (Ethiopia only has one government-run network that’s crap, so not much choice there.) You can purchase a sim card in any mobile network shop or from some supermarkets in cities. Sim cards are typically cheap compared to talk time. In some countries, such as Tanzania, most people have two sim cards because prices to call friends on other networks are ridiculous high.

If you’re American, you’ll also need a phone that takes sim cards (Verizon does not use sim cards; AT&T and T-Mobile do) and is unlocked. If your phone doesn’t take sim cards or is locked, I would recommend buying a cheap local phone, especially if you’re only traveling for a short time.

I’ve been on the road for a while, though, so I have a blackberry. An old school blackberry, that I’ve dropped from 20 meters in the air onto a concrete floor and it’s still going strong. I bought it on sale and unlocked in Nairobi. The major reason I invested in a blackberry is because I use my phone a lot for emailing, and the keyboard is infinitely better than using T9.

The primary purpose of the cell phone is to talk to people. Local calls are easy and cheap. Just purchase a talk time voucher (= scratch card) anywhere (literally, anywhere) and follow the instructions to load your sim card with pre-paid talk time. You can also call internationally using talk time, but the rates can get expensive. I find it’s usually cheaper to have some from abroad call your local number using Skype or another online service such as Jajah. Incoming calls are free (Americans, take note).

The secondary purpose of the cell phone is for internet. The first step to getting internet access on your phone is getting internet or data settings for your sim card. This varies from provider to provider, so I always just walk into a shop and ask them to do it for me. You can also call the free help line if you don’t mind waiting on hold for a bit. Some networks don’t need you to register settings (like Vodacom) while others request that you send an sms (= text message) to a specific number to request settings.

The second step is to have an internet browser on your phone. I use Opera Mini which can be downloaded free from the internet. I also downloaded a gmail mobile application to get my email pushed to my phone. To all blackberry users: every mobile network provider is going to tell you that you must subscribe to their expensive blackberry data plan in order to get internet on your blackberry. FALSE. All you need is a 3rd party web browser (like opera mini) to bypass the blackberry data plan and just pay-as-you-go using talk time. You can get opera mini on your phone one of two ways: 1) Pay for the blackberry data plan for one month and download it yourself from m.opera.com, or find a friend who’s paid for the data plan and use their sim card to download the application 2) Connect your blackberry to a laptop and install it using the Blackberry Desktop Manager (files for opera mini can be found here).

The third step is to change your phone’s TCP settings, which include the APN, username and password. Opera mini has settings for a number of different providers here, or you can just ask someone in the network provider shop. The blackberry stores these settings under Advanced Options > TCP.

2. The laptop

Many people choose to travel with their laptop, either for work purposes or as a place to store documents, music, and pictures. I carry a Dell netbook, 10” screen. It’s small enough to fit in my bag unnoticed, but has a 93% keyboard that makes it feel almost like a normal-sized computer. I jacked up the harddrive (to 250GB) and battery (to a 6 cell battery which lasts about 5 hours). My only complaint is that the mouse is terrible because the buttons are not separate enough from the touchpad, making selecting things a pain. So I use a mini-mouse that plugs into a USB port. If I had to choose a netbook again, I would probably go with the HP because the keyboard is nicest and the mouse uses side buttons. But keep in mind that there are always new and improved netbooks on the market, so its best to do current research before purchasing one (Asus and Lenovo also two top netbook producers).

I also carry a 500GB Western Digital external harddrive. This serves as an essential backup for all my documents, photos, and music, and also as a place to keep my (ridiculously large) movie collection.

The most important thing for your laptop while traveling is virus protection. AVG is free, but others that cost money, such as Norton and Kaspersky, are supposed to be better. If you care about your documents, I’d invest in something that does a good job. Viruses are omni-present in Africa, and are spread like wildfire via flash disks (= USB keys). Never put anyone else’s flash disk into your computer without checking it for viruses, even if they say it’s clean. Update your virus protection often. Windows machines are especially at risk. Macs are relatively safe, but not because they can’t get viruses. They are just not as common as Windows machines so people haven’t bothered to write as many viruses for them. Yet. For the more technologically-minded travelers looking for the ultimate protection, use a linux operating system (I run Ubuntu) because you can’t get viruses.

3. The internet modem

The final step to complete connectivity is internet on your computer, all the time. This may sound like a distant dream, especially in Africa, but in reality it is 100% possible.

The ultimate connection is achieved by a 3G internet modem that plugs into you computer’s USB port. The modem has a slot for a sim card, and connects to the internet over the mobile phone network. You can simply load talk time onto your sim card to pay for internet, or some providers offer data bundles. Vodacom, for example, lets you purchase megabytes as a pre-paid voucher, which is significantly cheaper than using your talk time.

Nearly every mobile provider offers a 3G modem these days. All of these modems are locked to one specific mobile phone network, though, so they’re most useful if you’re staying in one country. If you’re always traveling, like me, then you can unlock your modem and use it with any sim card, with any network, in any country. To unlock your modem, you can either google and try a few hacks online (which I tried and failed because I had a different modem model) or you can pay someone to send you an unlock code. I used King Mobile Phone, which was reliable, easy, and quick. I sent them my modem number and they emailed me back an unlock code within 24 hours. When you insert a sim card from another network into a locked modem, a box appears where you can enter an unlock code. All you need is this code, and you’re good to use the modem anywhere. But don’t guess – you only get a set number of chances to get it right.

Finally, plug the modem into your computer and connect to the internet using the connection program that comes on the modem for Windows and Macs or using the Mobile Broadband network connection in Ubuntu. You will need both the appropriate data settings on your sim card and connection settings for the computer. The latter will be automatically loaded into the connection program, unless you’re using an unlocked modem on a different network or if you’re running Ubuntu. If you need to change or load the settings yourself, they are the same TCP settings that you use in your mobile phone (Opera Mini help lists some of them here), except you’ll also need a network-specific dialing number (usually *99#). Once again, any mobile provider shop can give you the specific settings for their network.

If you follow these three steps, then the only time you’ll be disconnected will be when the mobile phone networks go out, or if you run out of battery life and there’s no electricity to charge your devices. But if that happens, take it as a much needed respite from your internet addiction.

Advertisements