7 February 2008
by Nowick Gray
It all reminds me of the days ('96 and before) when I was first connecting to the Internet from my house in the backwoods of British Columbia ... the exhilaration of that first mysterious blue-and-white text in Lynx, mingled with the pain of $300/month phone bills and never-ending modem configuration problems, port settings and IRQ conflicts, staticky garble and screech and disconnect ...
Now, heady with the slick thrill of receiving email to my BlackBerry from the comfort of a jungle hut in Maui, I come to Thailand expecting similar service, and enter a never-ending series of impediments and dashed expectations.
First there was the search for the local SIM card: that was the easy part, as they are available at every block’s 7-Eleven. The tricky part came in trying to access data: I discovered, in an afternoon’s tour of the main downtown mobile shops, that none of the providers accept BlackBerry data service accounts from foreigners. So much for the sales pitch of the guy in Canada who sold me my device in November, hyping it over the Nokia (which would have worked fine here for data). So I’m stuck with exhorbitant roaming charges if I want data ... unless I want to try again with the workaround that cost me a week of trouble just now, just to get back to where I started.
When I catch my breath I just might try again ... having learned the hard way -- by trial and error, scouring the Internet help forums, waiting a week for crumbs from tech support email, and finally discovering a 24-hour help line I could access with a $15 overseas call from a travel agency -- how to take the engine apart and put it back together again. Along the way was a hot day’s hike down the road in search of an international phone booth (it didn’t work as advertised with the card I’d purchased for $10 in another town); numerous hours doing Internet research by day and attempted installation procedures by night; and a dogged determination that, even though I strictly speaking didn’t need the phone or its data function much beyond the coming week when I wanted to simplify connections with traveling friends, I was paying top dollar for this so-called convenience and so bloody well wanted to take full advantage of it. I knew my final option -- trying to cancel my billing with Rogers Wireless back home in Canada -- would be an even bigger headache, with less chances of success.
The so-called workaround from the roaming-data dilemma was to install the latest handheld software, along with Opera mini browser, and change the TCP/APN settings to work with the local provider’s generic phone data service. Presumably I could do the same with my Rogers service back home, if they would let me switch from the costlier BlackBerry plan. The scheme never got off the ground because, midway through the software installation, the Application Loader froze. I used Ctrl-Alt-Delete to end it but the phone never recovered: instead going into an ominous red-blinking-light mode that I could stop only by removing the battery. Meanwhile I confirmed from the Thai service provider that they would not support the Blackberry even with a generic data plan -- rendering my whole exercise pointless from the outset.
Was the battery dead? Certainly it could not in any way start up the phone with its dead blank black screen. I found a mobile phone shop in the neighboring beach village, where the guy offered to recharge the battery; unfortunately he disappeared for the rest of the day, and I had to return to retrieve the battery the next morning.
Once I established that the battery was good, I went through endless steps of reinstalling software, but wasted several days of fruitless efforts before finding out I needed to make sure I first uninstalled all of the BlackBerry software on my computer, including the Rogers Wireless Connection Manager. Silly me: I should have thought of that at the beginning. Or maybe I did, but I was reluctant to mess with a component that had for its own part caused considerable futzing around to get to work properly back in Canada. And it was a key ingredient in my strategy to get Internet connectivity to my laptop using my phone tethered to it as a modem.
This was the dream I’d first heard from a traveler in India last year, and like a Holy Grail it took hold of my imagination and never let go; even though later in the Cook Islands I grilled another traveler I met who was a mobile phone expert, and found that, indeed, there was not yet simple compatibility with mobile phone networks and systems globally. Once back in Canada I decided to look into the matter in earnest when I found myself moving my residence and needing phone service. Land line or cell phone? The fact I was going to be traveling for three months of the winter swayed me to the cell phone option. And the Rogers GSM system seemed compatible worldwide as well as in Canada and Hawaii, so it was a no-brainer ... I thought. Opting for a Nokia promotion plan from Rogers, I went into the store on the day I moved and the salesman, hearing my travel plans and needs and objectives, convinced me that actually, the BlackBerry was the way to go. “Just unlock it and get a local SIM card when you’re there,” he told me, “and sign up for the cheap local data plan, and they’ll set you up. I’m going to Thailand next month myself.”
In Maui at the start of my trip, for only three weeks, I thought I could do fine with judicious data use in roaming mode; but in testing the tethering setup, found that the money meter ran on its own steam during a connection even when no content was visibly showing up or changing in the browser. For my longer Thailand visit I decided to follow the salesman’s advice and go with the SIM switch. To obtain the unlocking code I paid $40 on the Internet instead of the $60-$100 service he recommended with a Victoria contact. So far so good.
The first major disillusionment came in the discovery that no such data arrangements were available for BlackBerry in Thailand. The second came in attempting the end-run around the data obstacle, thinking that the installation of Desktop Manager was a simple affair. In my phone call with Rogers tech support, for instance, he assured me that all I needed was Desktop Manager; but at the BlackBerry download site for Rogers device software it stated clearly that I needed to install both Desktop Manager and the Handheld Device Manager separately. Earlier I had made the mistake of opting for the non-Rogers BlackBerry Desktop Manager 4.2.2 because it was available without multilanguage support and only 50-some MB, whereas the Rogers section was offering only the full version at 388 MB. It was enough of a stretch for me to take a few stabs at the hour-long download of the smaller file here, with several Internet and electricity outages along the way, without taking on the all-night option of the full version (though that was my next step to seriously consider). In the end I got by with the BlackBerry-Rogers Desktop Manager 4.0, combined with the Handheld Device Manager 4.2.1, and the cobbled advice to install beginning with the battery removed, reinserting before initialization. Oh yeah, and then there was the preliminary step to wipe the device clean with Java Commander, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, but in the end was evidently either successful or unnecessary, I still don’t know which.
Flush with “final” success last night, I phoned my friend Anna in France, until the call ended with time running out on my local SIM service. I switched to the Rogers SIM and phoned her back, roaming charges be damned. I then installed the gmail application I’d earlier downloaded to my PC, but it refused to configure properly. So today I sprung for the handheld download at roaming rates; this time I got the version I wanted, but still it refused to connect. I attempted calling Rogers support, again using the Rogers SIM card, but was unable to get past the Thai provider. I switched to the local SIM with new minutes I’d purchased today, called their help, and was informed I would need to phone Rogers for help, but using the Thai SIM. My new minutes were thankfully just enough to get me the answer I needed: that I needed to manually switch to a different Thai network provider with the Rogers SIM, in order for calls to go through back to Rogers or my voice mail. Unfortunately, however, they could not offer any advice about the gmail app, as they don’t support it.
Well, geez ... I guess I deserved some sort of consolation prize after all of this; because when I made the manual switch to a different Thai provider, suddenly the gmail was able to connect. Voila! I’m back in business. Now I can lie back and sip from a coconut listening to crickets, while I check my email again. And it was awfully sweet to phone Anna last night on a train headed for Paris. She said she’d call when she got to Bangkok ...
So after all of the above headaches, and a month and a half of paying for Internet by the minute from local shops ... two days before I'm set to leave Thailand I run into a friend from home. He has an iPhone and it's working great -- high-resolution video, full-display Web pages, connected through a local provider ... and he tells me it should be no problem to connect with my BlackBerry the same way. So I give him the gist of the above story; but he insists, "No really, you should be able to connect, just dial *138 and they'll set you up."
"No, I phoned them over and over again, and I spent a day running around to all the major phone shops in Bangkok, and they won't support BlackBerry--"
"Tell you what. I have an extra SIM card. Just try it. *138."
Sure enough -- after several attempts where the response was either "You don't have enough minutes on your account," or "The number you dialed is not recognized," I got through to the mobile Internet data menu. Unlimited data for a month, 5 hours for 50 baht (normally 50 baht got me 25 minutes at an Internet cafe), and so on. Just make your selection and away you go.
I didn't know whether to be elated or dejected. I let out a big sigh. "I guess it's like when you get enlightened before you die," I said to my friend. "Better late than never."
Of course, the postscript to this bittersweet postscript is that, with my 5-hour, 50-baht credit now nicely attached to the local SIM in my BlackBerry, I'm still having to do all my Internet correspondence at the cafes, because the signal is not strong enough to collect email on my phone.
Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.
...Internet Slowdown Blues...