My adventures in French Internet-land

September 21, 2010

I was in France for two weeks. As part of that trip, I needed a good Internet connection to work remotely. It turns out that getting an Internet connection in the 21st century is a much more massive ordeal than I imagined.

My hotel had free wifi, so that was a good place to start. They gave me a username and password. The speed was decent, but it didn’t work well with my laptop, while on iOS devices it worked very well. The one annoyance was that since I had three devices but only one password, I had to keep logging in and out constantly. But hey, it’s free, so can’t complain too much. And Skype calls on iPhone were great over wifi.

Turns out that there is some hardware incompatibility between EU and US Mac hardware. Boo, Apple. I don’t really know if this was the cause, because it sort of worked on Macbook, except when it didn’t. Sometimes it was OK for a while, and sometimes connections kept dying. It was annoying enough that I needed to look for alternative solutions, since I really needed to connect to version control and other work things that I couldn’t use on iOS.

I figured my next step was to get mobile Internet (3G) which is supposed to be much better in Europe than the US. To test that it works, I tethered my iPhone to Mac and tried it out. It worked great, but since I was roaming with AT&T, it cost me $20/MB. Ouch. Well, at least I knew this is a better option than annoying myself with the nonworking wifi, so my next step was to walk over to a mobile store.

I chose Orange because I understand it’s a good brand and on their website, they advertised decent packages. I know just enough little French to be dangerous. So I walked over and waited at the store for like an hour. This was one of the most annoying parts, they did not really seem to care about customer service, they just kept you hanging around there. Finally I could speak with someone who sold me a 3G USB widget with a SIM. They told me it’s unlimited for a day, and then I can buy more time, either 10€ unlimited for 2 days, or 18€ 1GB traffic cap for a week, both of which sounded fine. And that I can buy extra online.

Sure enough, it worked well for the first day, and the speed was decent for async tasks like downloading. Skype calls didn’t work at all though, so I still had to use iOS and wifi for that. Whatever.

When I ran out of the initial allocation a day or two later, it redirected me to a page telling me I have to buy extra traffic. Which was fine… except the buying feature did not work, it kept timing out. And the 10€ or 18€ options were nowhere in sight, it only offered me to buy traffic at 1€/15MB. Which is still quite a lot, but much better than $20/MB. So I went through the stupid wizard that often broke before you got to the end… but when I got to the end, it tells me there is a technical problem accepting my card. This is most likely because I was using a bank card not issued in France, and they probably accept only French cards. Of course, it didn’t tell me so beforehand, it wasted my time going through the whole ordeal.

There is a number where you can call to reload your credit, but it had the same problems. Didn’t work most of the time, didn’t recognize my input (sure enough, I was using Skype so maybe the transmission problem was on Skype side), and when it did, it had me go through the whole process and again tell me “Technical problem.” Which again, in my mind, translated to “We don’t accept non-French cards.” But why can’t you say so directly then?

Okay, I thought. The Orange store is across the street, so not a big deal for me to go there and try buying those €10 or €18 reloads. So I went there and again spoke with a service person who didn’t really seem to be interested in me. I’m sure part of that is that I don’t speak French well so I resorted to English.

“Can I get those €10 or €18 packages?” I asked. “No you can’t. You can only buy those online.” “Okay. I apologize. My French is not very good and your online service is in French only. Can we just do it here at the store together with you in two minutes? Can you help me buy those?” “No we cannot do that. I don’t have Internet here in my computer.”


(Side note: this seems to be a common situation also in the US. Banks and similar places do not have access to their own customer-facing Internet services at their offices. From a customer viewpoint, it is silly. You could make this available and train your customers to use your stuff online, so they would later waste less of your time coming in. I do not really understand the business reasoning of not having this. In Estonia, it is very common in banks and other utility companies, even tax office and other government agencies, to have customer computers at their offices, so customers can either use the self-service stuff right there by themselves. Or, if the customers want to learn more, the service rep can walk the customer through the service, right there, together, at the computer using the actual service instead of just remotely talking about it. But I digress.)

Okay, then. Back to the Orange store. I still had to buy some traffic at 1€/15MB, which cost me more than the €10 or €18 packages would have cost. But, I really needed to get work done at that point, and I was just tired of arguing with silly systems and people. Bought some credit, called a line to load it to my 3G key, and from there on, it worked.

My experience with AT&T is an interesting contrast. Like I mentioned, I burned through a bunch of international data traffic at $20/MB. After 50MB, AT&T shut me down since I did not have any special package for int’l traffic, and I guess this limit is in place to keep stupid people from themselves. That’s that, I thought, I’ll end up paying a lot for stupidity, which is a common theme in life.

But a few days later, and before the billing period was over, some nice serviceperson called me from AT&T and offered to retroactively sell me an int’l data package for $119 to cover all this traffic. That was very nice of them. They totally did not have to do that, they could have just collected all the money from me and said HAHA STUPID. But that they noticed this, reached out and gave me the package, was great, and a nice change to all the global AT&T bashing going on everywhere.

I don’t really know what’s the conclusion here. Mobile Internet still is more reliable than wifi for travellers and remote workers. But if you are not familiar with the local market or language or service culture, getting the service and going through the sales experience can be frustrating. Once I got everything activated and working in the end, it technically worked very well.