Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mobile/Data Roaming in India with iPhone/Laptop and Vodafone (October, 2010)

Traveling across India for a month I figured having a prepaid SIM card to use for calls and data for my iPhone would be ideal. Looking around for the best overall coverage in India I found Airtel and Vodafone to be the most popular and have the greatest coverage. This is also noticed by the Airtel and Vodafone banners and outlets every 50 meters in pretty much every city in India. Digging even deeper and comparing the two in online forums I discovered Vodafone to have the best customer service, a fair price, and a fairly inexpensive iPhone data pack using the EDGE network for prepaid subscribers (3G is still very scattered across India). Visiting the official Vodafone service centers I also felt the same as they were very nice, clean, and the employees were very helpful in good uniform.

So deciding to go with Vodafone I learned a few things. First, you will see Vodafone signs on stores all across India every 50 meters. These outlets sell Vodafone and can recharge your SIM card. Please, do NOT buy your initial SIM card at one of these outlets. Yes, they have no queue and can take care of you quickly, but they tend to be sloppy. I had my paperwork shuffled between 10 pairs of hands on my first visit to one of the more popular outlets in Mumbai, called The Mobile Store. Papers were scattered everywhere and there was no organization. Needless to say they botched my documents and my SIM card was disabled for some time after a few days, which is the grace period between when you get the SIM and your original documents are received and processed. This grace period is about 3-5 days depending on whether you applied on a weekend as the original documents are physically sent to Vodafone headquarters for processing. India is strict about mobile regulation and documents as we have seen in other European countries as of late due to increased security, so an authorized outlet is probably not where you want to get started as they are impossible to work with after the fact. These outlets come in handy later for recharging your SIM card but try to make your way to an official Vodafone service center as your starting point. They are large, clean, and organized, but may also have a queue.

Wherever you buy your SIM card it will work right away, but if after a few days Vodafone discovers a problem with your documents they will temporarily suspend your service until you can fix it. This is a pain to fix once you leave the state in which you applied for the SIM as India is a country of many states or regions and at this time they are not fully unified in their mobile service strategy. For instance, if you dial 111 for Vodafone customer service in Mumbai, which is in the state of Maharashtra, you get service for that state. If you are in Uttar Pradesh or any other state and dial 111 you will get that state. Other states can not help you with your Mumbai SIM card or any other foreign state to them. For example, if you are traveling outside Mumbai and have a Mumbai SIM card you have to call Mumbai customer service which is now a long distance number and dialing it will not work with your SIM card if it is having problems, which means you will have to call from somewhere else.

I will say two things about this. Wherever you have the most time, take care of business and make sure everything is working right before you travel outside that Indian state. Ensure all your services work, and all your subscriptions are in order. For example, it may not be possible for you to subscribe to the iPhone data pack outside the state you bought your SIM card in. Walking into Vodafone service centers outside your “home” state can yield giant sighs as they are limited in how they can help you. You are roaming now and little can be done until you return to your subscribing home state to fix things up. As a traveler you may not be going back to where you signed up so it is very important to make sure you are 100% before leaving. Calling Vodafone’s service centers is worthless unless you can speak Hindi. While they do speak English it is subpar at best and beyond basic communication, almost impossible. This is to include troubleshooting your SIM card. Your best bet is to have an outlet call Vodafone for you or stop in an authorized service center to get help.

To obtain your Vodafone prepaid SIM card, walk into a Vodafone service center and take a number or stand in the queue. If it is a smaller town and not very organized where a bunch of people are standing about, make yourself known to one of the representatives. In India queuing can be survival of the fittest without an organized system, but having been to a few Vodafone outlets now, only once did I have to do this. You will need to bring a Xerox copy of your Passport and Indian Visa. They do not Xerox at the Vodafone outlet so look around for Xerox outlets which are everywhere and usually near the Vodafone outlet or your hotel. They will have the sign XEROX posted prominently as that is how a “copy” is still referred to here. It cost 1Rs ($.02) for a Xerox. In addition to a copy of your passport and visa, you also need a full color passport photo and a signed letter from your hotel on company letterhead stating that you are a guest there. This is to satisfy the residence requirement.

Armed with the two copies, a photo, and the letter, Vodafone will give you a SIM and fill out a 2 page application which you will have to sign in several places. Ensure all the information is correct. Do not cross out anything on the form but start over if you have to. Usually they will fill it out for you to minimize errors. Try to write down your information or refer to your passport when they ask you questions. There may be a small fee to activate the SIM which is nominal. They will ask you what the initial charge amount will be, or how many rupees (Rs) you want to put on the SIM. Figure how much you will need. A call within India from your home state is 1Rs ($.02) per minute. As you will probably be traveling, you should figure the roaming rate which is 1.5Rs ($.03) per minute. To call the USA is 5Rs ($.10) per minute.

While Vodafone has a lot of iPhone data plans for postpaid customers, they currently only have one for prepaid customers. It is called the prepaid iPhone data plan which is 100Rs ($2.25) per month to use which will automatically be deducted from your SIM amount. If you are traveling for longer than 1 month ensure you maintain more than 100Rs in your account at all times or it may be disabled. The plan does not come with any data but simply allows you to use the EDGE network everywhere across India and gives your iPhone a WAN IP address which allows it to access the Internet. Until this is activated the “E” will never appear on your phone next to your signal strength and you will not be allowed internet access. I could never get the slower GPRS Internet to work on my iPhone despite some claims that it comes out of the box. I didn’t care much since GPRS is too slow to be worthwhile.

The iPhone plan data cost 5p/10KB which translates to 1Rs($.02)/200KB, or 5Rs($.10)/MB. A good rule of thumb is 10 cents per megabyte. This will give you plenty of inexpensive flexibility for checking e-mail, using Google Maps and GPS, or checking train schedules! It is the same price no matter where you are roaming on Vodafone in India. This is great for knowing where to go at all times, figuring distance to measure cab fares, and waking up to find your 5AM train is late 3 hours (typical), which can allow an extra few hours rest in the hotel to enjoy a peaceful breakfast. It’s also worth a good ten cents to jump in a rickshaw and know the directions to where you are going.

Once your SIM card is activated in Vodafone’s system, you cannot subscribe to the iPhone data service for 5 hours. After you wait the 5 hours and subscribe to the iPhone data service plan it can take up to 24 hours to work. This is why wherever you are starting out you want to be there a couple days to ensure everything is up and running OK.

I will say this. The concept of the iPhone data plan is completely foreign to almost everyone. Just knowing it exists could land you a job at Vodafone as a knowledgeable employee. When in the Vodafone service center, if you need assistance subscribing to a service, it is considered “Express Help”, so just tell someone you want to activate the iPhone data pack and if they understand, you can jump the queue and go right to the Internet specialist or GPRS specialist as they are sometimes referred as. You can also activate it yourself with SMS by sending the phrase “ACT iphone” to 144. The SMS will reply back and state that your subscription will be active in 24 hours. Mine activated much faster than this in only about a few hours I noticed the E on my iPhone and could surf the web. If you have any problems or the SMS returns back with invalid parameters go visit the official Vodafone service center for help. Note those little authorized outlets probably won’t be able to help, let alone know what the iPhone data pack is. Most of them have never even seen an iPhone.

I have to give another word of advice. Don’t go putting too much money on your card to begin with. Keep the balance to a few hundred rupees only ($5). If there is a problem and Vodafone shuts off the card or you can’t get it working and you are traveling outside your home state where you can’t get it fixed, your balance won’t be refunded. It will probably be easier to just get another SIM card. As you may have figured by now this happened to me and is really quite common searching around. It may be because I went to the authorized outlet to begin with which was a mistake, as they did not properly stamp the documents with their dealer stamp which caused it to shutoff. Not my problem but that’s how it goes. I had to resubmit my documents all over again at another Vodafone store out of state which causes even more confusion and can take time for it to turn back on. I bought another SIM in the process and put a few dollars on it to hold me over until my first one was fixed. If you do find a nice outlet in a small village without a Vodafone service center, befriend the owner and obtain his e-mail and mobile phone information so you can call them to help with any problems. I still advise to skip the dealers and go right to the service center in a city if you can find one.

I did mention the authorized dealers are great for recharging as they are everywhere and don’t require you to find a service center. The only weird thing is they like to work with odd amounts. They may say 333 rupees for 333 talk time, or 555 for 555, or 1111 for 1111. They don’t have computers there so don’t think they are just going to take your money. India uses SMS to do a lot of things such pay the electric bill and these outlets are similar in using their mobile’s SMS to conduct the transaction. Tell the outlet you want to recharge and they will text Vodafone. You will get an SMS immediately that says they are processing the amount and it will show in your balance. If you want to check the balance you can dial *141#. Do not leave until the outlet until you see the SMS that your money has been credited to your SIM. Rip offs may occur although I never ran into this. You should get what you pay for and it should be confirmed via SMS immediately. There should be no additional charges for the outlet to do this recharge service, so if you pay 333 you should see 333 added to your SIM and that amount confirmed via SMS.

Coverage has been good almost everywhere and the Internet works on long stretch trains even in smaller towns. Vodafone is very prominent and far from a remote jungle, (the only place I did not have signal is Ranthambore Park) I doubt you will have any places without coverage. The EDGE network is pretty fast also but not fast enough for video streaming.

Another nice surprise is laptop tethering works right out of the box! I turned on internet tethering with my iPhone and plugged it into my Windows 7 laptop via USB and could surf without any setup or configuration. It also supports Bluetooth if you don’t want to tether to your laptop via a cable. Most carriers require extra money for this or you have to hack your iPhone to make tethering work but this is not the case. Tethering worked right out of the box using stock iPhone applications.

iPhone Disclaimer: In order for you to use your iPhone with Vodafone or any other carrier in India it must be unlocked! You may have an unlocked iPhone depending on from which country you bought it but if you bought it in the US the phone is most likely locked to AT&T and must be “jailbroken” and “unlocked” to work with foreign carriers. When this is completed, you can test that your phone is working unlocked in the US before leaving by buying a prepaid SIM or trying your friend’s SIM card on a different GSM network, such as T-Mobile.

India Travel Itinerary: Mumbai, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Sawai Madhopor, Udaipur, Jodhpor, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Delhi

Saturday, October 17, 2009

PC Computer Backup: Mozy is superior to Backblaze (October, 2009)

We all fear the day when our computer crashes and we lose all our files, so we have to back it up. But who remembers to do that and who wants to? Messing with removable drives and remembering to do it are just some of the concerns. Also if something happens to your home, such as theft or fire, you lose everything anyway. That is just too much to deal with and too much risk.

When I found out about these online backup programs for $5 per month that backup everything on your computer constantly to an online service, I was excited but skeptical. My first thoughts were “does this really work?” and “how difficult is it to maintain?” While I love technology I hate difficulty. With technology getting smarter, easier, and simpler every day, I jump on every “set it and forget it” solution I can find.

Asking and searching around for the popular services I stumbled across Mozy ( and Backblaze ( Both are about $5 per month for unlimited real-time online backup. Now that is a deal. Both were simple to install, just download and click go. As far as ease of use and getting the job done I thought both these programs were great. But being skeptical I had to do some rigorous testing of these. After all, if I am going to trust these services with all my files and data, they better work right.

I was hoping to find comparison and test information searching the internet and reading forums but to no avail. I didn’t want to sign up for both of these services and do all the research if I could find the answers I was looking for, but many tests were done a long time ago and no good recent information could be found.

Here is where I’m going to get a bit technical. You can take my word for it that Mozy is the winner and just stop here, but if you’re into computers and want to know why, read on.

Philosophy: One big difference between Mozy and Backblaze is the philosophy. With Mozy you select what you want to backup, while with Backblaze they backup everything on the computer without asking. That is great, but Mozy’s default selections showed 133GB on my computers and Backblaze only showed 99GB. Backblaze excludes a lot of files by default such as virtual machine files, ISO files, EXE files, the program files directory, and many more. I guess they are assuming that I have those files backed up somewhere else. Well you know what they say about assumption.

I am giving this to Mozy hands down. What Mozy didn’t select by default was my operating system and programs, similar to Backblaze, but they didn’t have a list of exclusions. Mozy was smart enough to detect some financial data files in the program files directory. I think power has to be given to selection here as these systems can’t possibly know everything about your computer. Winner: Mozy.

Security: Mozy automatically secured all files prior to uploading them to Mozy with a 448-bit encryption key. Backblaze requires this to be configured and used AES but didn’t offer any insight on their algorithms. I like that Mozy by default took the safer selection with security and encrypted my data. Winner: Mozy.

Speed: I thought the speed was pretty close. Both programs took about week to backup my 100GB or so. I am using a Comcast cable connection. Winner: Tie.

Bandwidth Efficiency: This was the meat and potatoes of the whole deal. I am greedy with my internet speed and bandwidth. I don’t like sharing it, especially with a backup service that is running in the background making my internet slow. So that backup service better “get in and get out” as they say. Well, let’s take a large file example. Say I have a mail storage file of 1GB or 2GB, and I put a new e-mail in there and now it is 2.01GB. The smart program will upload .01 GB in just a minute. The not so smart one will upload the whole 2GB file again thinking it is completely different, thus wasting many hours of bandwidth and slowing down the internet speed. Not to mention if you change it a lot you may never stay ahead of the backup game as it will constantly be re-uploading.

This is where Mozy’s block level file technology comes into play. I was surprised to see Backblaze upload the entire file again. Mozy only uploaded the blocks that changed. This was fast, efficient, and satisfying. Winner: Mozy.

Functionality: Remember when I said both programs did the job? Well, the devil is in the details. Let’s say you like to leave a file open on your computer. I like to use the e-mail example because a lot of us leave our e-mail open, such as Microsoft Outlook, IMAP client, maybe our favorite Excel file, financial program, or even a picture database. Well when you leave files open that usually means other programs can’t access them, such as these online backup programs. What’s even worse is sometimes you may close a program or file, but it stays open in the background and you don’t even know about it! An example of this is the MobileMe I have running by Apple. It likes to leave my Outlook process running even though I close Outlook so it can maintain synchronization between my Outlook and iPhone. This means the Outlook.exe process is still locking my files leaving them out of reach to other processes.

Thoroughly testing this, Backblaze just would not budge on my open files. It would not start backing them up until everything was properly closed. This means I had to be aware of everything going on with my PC and what may or may not be locking my files without my knowledge.

In comes Mozy to the rescue with the ability to leverage snapshots through Microsoft’s VSS (Virtual Shadow Service). This service snapshots open files and allows them to be uploaded. It even combines with the block level file technology so it can snap only the block difference in the file. This is a great combination of efficiency and functionality.

So, I may have been in the dark with Backblaze considering I leave my computer on months at a time and don’t want to worry about situations such as MobileMe and what it’s locking on my computer. I have to give Mozy the hands down win on this one too. The “set it and forget it” on Mozy is not only working, it is working smart. Winner: Mozy.

Consideration: Mozy did not arbitrarily decide when to start my backups like its Backblaze cousin who randomly decided to back things up when it wanted to. Mozy would wait until my activity was idle for 20 minutes before starting. It didn’t want to disturb me. It also made sure my processor usage was under 60% so if I was running something and away from the machine, it would wait until that completed. Thank you Mozy I wasn’t expecting that. Winner: Mozy.

Information: How important is information to technology? VERY. I want to know what, when, where, why, and how much at all times. Similar to a bank statement – if the bank takes my money I want to know why and what for. I treat my information the same way. If I just changed a file and run a backup, there should be somewhere I can find out what just happened, how it happened, how long it took, whether it succeeded or failed, and maybe even some notes if something out of the ordinary occurred.

Backblaze shows none of this. If you run a backup you are lucky to see any information aside from a note stating “backup complete”. Where is the information? Maybe a log file? I sure couldn’t find it in the program or poking around the directory structure. I guess that isn’t important. That could make tech support easy and reduce liability I guess. I suppose if I have nothing to show for what happened, Backblaze can say it never did… or did it? That is a little scary.

Mozy more than delivers. It shows all the history, the backups that ran, the files that got backed up, the path, the size of the file (or the patch size of the file, which is the difference in the block level), the time it took to encrypt the file, transfer it, and what the internet transfer rate was at the time. It even has that little notes field I like for informational statements. Winner: Mozy.

Conclusion: These programs have come a long way. People take their data very seriously and these programs have to match up with those expectations.

Who would I trust right now with backing up my information efficiently, quickly, accurately, and securely? Winner: Mozy.