UPDATE: Read our Tep Wireless follow-up post, reviewing user experiences with the hotspot rental service. Many people have been displeased with the service.
I recently returned from a three-week trip through Europe. I drank the wine, explored the museums and experienced the cultures, but being the hopelessly geeky person that I am, I also felt compelled to stay connected to the Internet all the time. And that's how I came to learn about Tep Wireless and their pocket WiFi rental service.
We've all heard the horror stories of people traveling abroad, roaming with their smartphones and coming home to find a positively enormous cell phone bill in the five-figure range. I wasn't going to do that, but I didn't want to rely on public Wi-Fi access points either. Tep Wireless sounded like it could be one of the more affordable solutions that would actually get the job done.
What Is Tep Wireless?
Basically, you are able to rent a pocket Wi-Fi device from Tep Wireless, you are provided with a certain amount of data in your package, and then you can travel to the international destination of your choosing knowing that you'll have the Internet in your pocket. You do need tell them ahead of time where you are going, as this can affect rates, as well as how long you plan on using the service.
The pocket Wi-Fi device, in case you aren't as familiar, is simply a mobile hotspot. Some of you may know it as a "MiFi" device. Tep doesn't necessarily specify exactly which model you will receive, but the 3G service should be fundamentally the same. The device lets you connect up to five devices at one time and the price includes your data plan as well as the hotspot rental.
Getting the Package Before Leaving
You might remember when I wrote a guide for travelling techie types several years back. Many of those things still apply, like remembering to charge your batteries and why you should bring along a surge-protecting power bar. These days, though, making sure you stay connected on the go is actually a lot easier and more affordable.
As far as cost is concerned, I booked the rental for a three-week period, covering multiple countries in Europe, including 1GB total for the rental period. For me, that came to $143, plus $19.95 for them to ship (via FedEx) to my door. I opted to organize my own return of the device, since they only had prepaid options for UK and US. All said, my rental was $162.95. Going to the website today, it seems the price has gone up (about $180 for three weeks, plus shipping). It's possible this is due to increased demand during the summer months, but I can't say for sure.
There are upgrade options to get more data if you need it. In the case of a three-week rental, which defaults to 1GB, you can add an extra 50MB/day for $3.95/day or an extra 150MB/day for $7.95/day. We kept our usage relatively modest for our three weeks, going through about 800MB or so, but of course your mileage will vary.
Seamless Connectivity Across Borders?
If you've ever used any other mobile hotspot-type device in the past, then you'll have no trouble figuring out how to use the Tep pocket Wi-Fi. The SSID and password are printed on a sticker on the back, making it easy to connect your smartphone, tablet or whatever else you need to use. This particular Huawei model had four indicator lights on the front: wireless signal, Wi-Fi, battery and messages.
As with most other mobile hotspots, this one also took a few moments to grab a signal each time I turned it on. This varied, depending on where I was at the time, but I was usually up and running in about 20-30 seconds. I never had the hotspot on right at the moment I was crossing a border from one country to the next. That being said, each time I turned it on, there was never an issue with connecting to the local network and getting my access to the web. It was pretty seamless.
Wireless Speeds and Usage Details
The Tep Wireless pocket Wi-Fi is a 3G device, usually with a theoretical maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps. Tep supports a huge number of countries from all around the world, including France, Italy, Taiwan, South Africa, Japan, Egypt, Guatamala, and Australia. As you can probably guess, the actual performance will vary considerably from country to country, network to network. For my part, I never felt particularly lacking for speed, given the circumstances.
Battery life was typical of a mobile hotspot, lasting in the range of about 4-5 hours with intermittent use. There was a spare battery included, but I also packed along a portable battery pack too for both the hotspot and my smartphone.
While it would have been nice to have a proper "account" page or portal to access, the only way you can check how much data you've been using is to dial into 192.168.0.1 while connected to the hotspot. The actual software and UI will vary from device to device, but I had to choose "classic" view with the Huawei and then navigate to the lower-left corner. One bit of advice is that you should clear out the history as soon as you get the device, as the usage history may include the previous renter. It did for me.
MEGATechie Trusty Travel Companion or MEGATechie Pricey Portable Web?
Compared to how much you'd pay at home for your wireless data, Tep Wireless is going to sound expensive. It worked out to over $6 a day for me, not including shipping. If you rent for a shorter period, it can work out to as much as $12.50 per day (for Europe). However, we have to realize this is an entirely different beast. For starters, the price includes the rental of the mobile hotspot itself. It's unlikely that you'd buy a pocket WiFi for every country you plan on visiting.
It's not cheap, per se, but when you are traveling abroad and you want mobile access to the Internet, a service like that offered by Tep Wireless is certainly worthwhile. In our case, as there were two of us, we were effectively able to "share" the cost since we could both connect to the hotspot at the same time. Compare this to getting two separate prepaid SIM cards... and separate SIMs for every country we visited. This is far more convenient, especially with the shipping options.
I can't say first-hand how Tep Wireless compares to competitors like XCom Global, but I'd definitely recommend you consider it if you are traveling and need Internet access on the go.
Reminder: Be sure to check out the follow-up post with an overview of how other people feel about their experience with Tep Wireless. There's good, but there's bad and ugly too.