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On the road with Xcom Global's MiFi hotspots

Since I'm on the high seas right now cruising about the polar regions on a cruise ship, I wanted to make sure that I had access to the Internet from just about anywhere. The cruise ship I'm on uses the standard satellite-based connectivity from MTN, but I felt like it would be nice to have a faster connection while we were in ports. So to test out the state of 3G/4G mobile hotspot service in Europe, I decided to put Xcom Global's service to the test on my own dime. Xcom Global is a US-based company that rents out mobile hotspots with unlimited data service for the foreign location that you're visiting.

I signed up for the service about a week prior to my trip. It's a very easy process; you just tell Xcom Global where you'll be and how many days you'll be traveling, and then they throw an estimated price at you. If you decide to go with the pricing, you consummate the transaction and the company ships you a MiFi (or two...) with the appropriate SIM for the locations you'll be visiting. It comes via FedEx one day before you're leaving on your trip. The cost per day is US$14.95 (plus a single $29.90 shipping charge per order); not exactly cheap, but if you need connectivity it's well worth the cost.If I was traveling on business, I'd be sure to expense the cost...

The ordering and shipping process was fast and flawless, and as soon as I received the package from Xcom Global I made sure to read the clear and concise documentation as I wanted to ensure that I knew exactly what I'd have to do to connect in our different ports. The device, a Novatel MiFi 2372, comes with a charger and several international plug adapters, two battery packs, and a number of instruction sheets. The day after you return to the USA, you're obligated to drop the device off at a FedEx office in a prepaid envelope so that it's returned to Xcom Global immediately for its next assignment. Extra charges accrue if you're late returning the MiFi.

When I signed up for the service, I really wasn't thinking about all of the small ports I'd be visiting. Instead, I just put in the main locations – London, Oslo (Norway) and Copenhagen – that we'd be hitting. There was a warning that if you tried getting onto a 3G or 4G network and hadn't previously told Xcom that you'd be there, the device might not work and that you could incur major monetary penalties.

I wanted to try the Xcom Global device in Reykjavik, Iceland, but close to a week after I tickled the company's support email address asking if I could use the device in other towns and cities along the way (it was labeled as EUR, suggesting that it should be able to be used on any European 3G/4G network), I had not received a reply. When you're on the road and want to get support without needing to make an international call, you expect the support email to be responsive. Thumbs down on Xcom Global's support apparatus...

In London, the device worked perfectly and put the free hotel Wi-Fi to shame in terms of speed. The device appeared to be connected to an LTE network, as the main power / status light was glowing purple. It took just about 30 seconds for me to power on the device, have it connect to the cellular data network, and then attach my iPad to the MiFi's Wi-Fi network.

In downtown Oslo, Norway, things didn't work as smoothly – in fact, they didn't work at all. The MiFi showed that it had achieved a connection to the cellular data network, but when I connected to the Wi-Fi network and tried to bring up a browser window, I ended up seeing a MiFi password page that did not respond to the pre-set password and I was unable to get past that page. After digging through the documentation, I found another password to enter, but that also failed. This is another situation where a much better support structure – a worldwide toll-free phone number – would have been useful. As it was, I just decided to give up on connecting in Oslo.

I decided to try connecting to the cellular network outside of the big cities, since there are two major carriers – Telenor and NetCom – that have coverage over most of the nation of Norway. In some of the smaller fjord cities we visited (Stavanger and Geiranger, for example), it was quite easy to connect to the cellular network and use the MiFi for access that was much faster than the best speeds on the shipboard satellite Internet. In several other locations also served by those two carriers, I wasn't so lucky in terms of getting a connection. Instead, the MiFi responded the same way it did in Oslo.

I still have a few more days to use the MiFi and Xcom Global's service on the trip, but at this point I think I have a pretty good idea of how it works (or doesn't). Would I use the service again in the future? Probably not. The daily cost is quite expensive, although cheap compared with the slow shipboard Internet service that was priced at $21 a day. But the lack of responsive email support from Xcom Global while I was on my trip as well as the inability to make connections in some locations with a strong signal from both Telenor and NetCom was frustrating.

Discussions with other people I know who have used Xcom Global's service seem to indicate that it works best when you're in major international locations with strong and ubiquitous 3G or 4G networks. In my situation, I was all over the map (literally) and on a variety of mixed 2G and 3G networks. If I had been just in major European cities, I think I would have found the Xcom Global service to be an affordable, secure and fast alternative to hotel or hotspot Wi-Fi. As it was, this was just an expensive and frustratingly erratic exercise in futility.

One suggestion I'd make to people who will be traveling overseas is that they look at their average daily data requirements when they travel – chances are they're going to be a bit larger than when you're at home, as you'll be sending more photos to friends and doing other "high bandwidth" things. Once you have that number of megabytes or gigabytes, take a look at what it would cost you to purchase that same amount of data capacity from your normal carrier using data roaming while you're on your trip. In my case on this trip, I honestly think that using my iPhone – if it had been working – and data roaming would have been much less expensive than Xcom Global's service for the short amount of time I was out of range of the ship's satellite internet.

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