Thursday, August 29, 2019

Skyroam Solis – a hotspot that takes the hassle out of international mobile data access (130 countries)

As a freelancer, a lot of my work is done at odd hours in odd places. The one constant is that most of it requires online access to contact clients, upload edited video, publish written content and push out social media updates at events.

Coffeeshop wifi is, for the most part, shockingly unreliable – particularly if the venue is using a domestic router – and is sometimes insecure without a VPN. Wireless access in hotels and airports is very patchy. And while many conference centres have invested heavily in flooding their spaces with robust wifi, spending a day in some spaces can feel like travelling back in time to the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Mobile phone networks are often more stable, and can be a lot faster for download, than broadband. They’re usually much faster for upload in my experience as someone who needs to share edited video files that can be more than a couple of gigabytes in size. But it can also be a lot more expensive, though an unlimited data SIM can be sourced for £20/month in the UK.

In years gone by, I carried an unlocked Huawei mifi hotspot (branded as Three) with me wherever I went. One of the first things I’d do in a new country was to buy a Pay As You Go SIM card and slot it in. (Easier said than done in the US where I first needed to buy a prepaid credit card in order to satisfy – or bypass – the identity rules to buy the SIM card as cash and foreign credit cards weren’t allowed.)

The elimination of mobile roaming charges across EU countries has been a godsend for travellers, both business and pleasure. But stray outside the magic list of ‘free’ countries and you’ll be paying a fixed daily fee for data and calls if you’re lucky, or an arm and a leg every few emails if you’re not.

On a recent work trip to Cape Town to attend Global Fact 6, the International Fact Checking Network annual meetup, with a colleague from FactCheckNI, I brought along a Skyroam Solis (loaded to me by their PR team) to see how it would work.

Not much larger or heavier than an ice hockey puck, the distinctive round orange hotspot will hook into mobile networks across 130 countries and allow up to five of your devices to connect over secure wifi. There are sizeable batteries inside – 6,200mAh (about four times the capacity of my Huawei mifi) – which can both power the Solis for hours on end, but also top up your phone’s battery with the provided cable.

The orange puck is small and robust enough to survive being thrown into my backpack and carted around airports, hotels and a conference for a week. A bus from Belfast (UK) to Dublin (Ireland), flight to Istanbul (Turkey) and another to Cape Town (South Africa) were all good tests for the Solis. There’s no physical SIM inside, only a virtual one, leaving Skyroam free to do deals with mobile operators around the world.

Holding the small power button in turns on the hotspot and the lights begins to flash as it figures out where in the world it is and how to get online. So no despite the fact every time I switched it on it was in a new country with a new set of mobile networks to choose from, the Solis figured it out every time without any intervention on my part.

A companion app (available for iOS and Android devices) uses a QR code on the base of the unit to pair up a phone to its wifi (finally a practical use for QR codes!) and lets you see details about the connection and your data usage. You can also connect to the Solis by typing in the wifi password printed on the base by hand.

In the last month, Skyroam have announced a new model, the Solis X which is marginally smaller, has a slightly smaller battery, but allows 10 devices to connect and includes a built-in camera, bluetooth microphone/speaker and can act as a smart assistant.

What does it cost?

One of the immutable rules of the universe is that data is never free! (The corollary is that any free data should assumed to be insecure, limited in bandwidth, and very frustrating to use.) So it should be no surprise that Skyroam offer a number of different ways to prepay for data on the Solis unit which can be bought outright or just rented for the duration of your travel.

Daypass – £7/day ($9) provides 24 hours of unlimited wifi in 130 or so countries. Outside of the friendly roam-free countries, this price point compares well with my current provider who charge £6/day to use my UK tariff’s existing data in an additional 58 countries outside ‘Europe’.

GoData – £7/month ($9) for 1GB of data that can be used over a month, with additional data available by top-up for £7/GB. While the subscription is set to roll over every month, there’s no contract period and as long as you cancel 4 days before the end of your current period. So you can subscribe for a single trip, then cancel and pick it up again a few months later and re-subscribe. I notice that there’s currently a deal to pay up front for 12 months of GoData and get a third off the price of the hotspot (£165 total for Solis+wifi).

Unlimited monthly subscription – £79/month (£99) for unlimited global data over 30 days. Again it rolls over, but there’s no contract and you can cancel up to 4 days before the end of any month. I reckon you’d need to be quite the road warrior doing a lot of international travel and a consuming a lot of data (video) for the Unlimited subscription to cost in. But having spent a month or so working in Macedonia this time last year – outside the EU roaming scheme – the Solis would have been quite competitive and less hassle than hours on the phone to Vodafone trying to rectify a problem with my ‘old’ tariff that wasn’t behaving internationally as their customer service had advised before I travelled.

Using it in anger

The Solis worked well on the bus down to Dublin airport and was a boon when the Cape Town hotel wanted to charge for wifi access. (Turns out that hotels charging for internet access is still a thing in 2019 … madness.)

Sitting at two o’clock in the morning in Istabul’s brand spanking new airport waiting for my flight home to Dublin, I was able to pull the Solis out of my backpack and get online within less than a minute. Dropbox synced up the changes I’d made on the previous flight and I spent a couple of hours editing Google Docs and dissecting people’s Twitter and Facebook usage for social media healthchecks I was running the next week.

Solis’ strength is that it’s hassle free, and given the colour, you’ll unlikely to leave it behind.

Saving an image badged as 1.2Mb on a website, I was surprised that the filesize turned out to be only a few kilobytes, and the picture seemed grainy when I opened it on my laptop. A similar problem can happen on any mobile network, with carriers offering some APNs that push traffic through invisible proxies that compress image sizes to reduce bandwidth (and data usage, often a good thing) as well as APNs that don’t tamper with the content being browsed. A quick conversation with Skyroam online chat resolved the issue and following their instruction to turn the Solis off and on again, it picked up a less restrictive configuration and the internet went back to normal. (Impressive support at 2am on a Sunday morning!)

The Solis is charged by USB-C, so there’s no chance of damaging the unit by trying to plug the charging cable in the wrong way around. It’s slightly annoying that the Solis refuses to be charged by my rather powerful 61W Apple MacBook charger (which would reduce the need to bring a separate charger plug), though it will happily charge off the laptop directly.

The larger the access point, the (potentially) larger the antennae that will be built in. Battery-powered hotspots from Huawei and Netgear (whose Nighthawk M1 is very effective if you have a physical SIM) tend to have small ports that allow a larger external antenna to be attached. I’ve one that comes with suckers that allows it to be stuck to an external window and typically boosts mobile signal strength by 25-40%. However, for air travellers, the lack of the option of an external antenna on the Solis won’t be a big minus.

Livestreaming

As someone who regularly records and livestream conferences, lectures and events using wifi-connected cameras (iPhones on remote gimbals) and Switcher Studio’s software, I’m always on the lookout for flexible connectivity solutions, particularly if working overseas and wanting to slim down the amount of kit that needs to travel.

Recording would just use its ability to connect up to five devices together (with the traffic between the devices staying within the room and none of it going out over mobile network). The Solis wouldn’t quite have the sensitivity of the larger Google Wi-Fi access point I trail around in my case which has multiple internal antennae. But in small venues with good line of sight between devices, the Solis could be a good option.

Streaming would not only rely on the five devices connecting together via wireless, but would take advantage of Solis’ 4G connectivity. It would be cost restrictive at home. And for streamers, Skyroam’s Fair Use Policy warns about bandwidth being reduced if a user consumes a disproportionately high amount of data, which makes this hotspot less attractive as a streaming solution, given the likelihood that an hour or more of an HD stream to Facebook Live or YouTube could trigger a service-restricting action.

But for short bursts while travelling, it could still be very effective.

Conclusion

Frequent travellers will enjoy the wide coverage and no-nonsense price plans that Skyroam offer. I found the loaned Solis unit to be robust and the technical support was speedy and, importantly, available when I needed it. The Skyroam Solis is a big time saver that avoids the hassle of buying a local SIM card if your mobile tariff back at home is going to prove too expensive. And the ability to go away for a few weeks outside Europe with a few GB of data loaded through GoData and know that it’ll work across a family is a very attractive option for regular travellers needing data on the move.

Thanks to Skyroam PR team for the loan of the hotspot.

1 comment:

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