Opinion

The weakest link in the chain

Breifing: If you want to communicate with the office when travelling abroad you'll need a suitcase full of adaptors. Eric Doyle explains

Theory is always better than practice and nowhere is this more true than in the world of remote communications.

The concept is, that when you are on the road, all you need to link to head office is a laptop or hand-held computer, a modem and a phone connection. The reality is that the connectivity solution that suits one region of the world will not necessarily work in another, and travellers can end up struggling under the burden of hardware.

Talk of third-generation (3G) networks is futurology and offers no comfort to anyone struggling with the reality of today's wireless communications. For example, European/Asian phones will not work in the USA.

The possibility of roaming often means renting a phone for trips to the US and using a SIM card to keep your phone number active in Europe - assuming that your service provider has an agreement with the US operators. There is also the issue of speed of connection to consider because roaming can mean higher tariffs for calls.

Satellite phones

The alternative wireless solution is the satellite phone, which often means slower links, and should only be considered by those with fat wallets and, depending on the option chosen, plenty of luggage space to carry the equipment. Even though great leaps have been made in reducing the size of satellite hardware, so that some are just slightly larger than a mobile phone, it is only practical when there is absolutely no alternative.

The reality for most globetrotters is the wall connection in a hotel. This means more than ensuring that your computer has a power adaptor for the local socket type and voltage supply. Just as mains supplies vary, so do phone connections. Variations go beyond the socket and plug level. Current can vary sufficiently to either ensure that your link is too weak to sustain a connection or it can be high enough to damage your modem.

International modems

Such horror scenarios are rare and most of the time you will find that a standard modem can be used without incident, but it is always best to ensure that you buy a modem that is certified for use in as many countries as possible. International modems are normally supplied with software drivers that comply with a wide range of local signalling standards and can detect differences in local dialling tones.

Another advantage is that these modems are supplied with a range of connectors for all the major countries. Unfortunately, this does not mean that all countries are covered. Even in supported countries, standards may have changed long ago but this does not mean that everyone replaced their sockets accordingly.

To cover most eventualities, many manufacturers and retail outlets have additional connector packs that will increase a modem's flexibility. Computacenter, for example, stocks travel kits for European and world socket types both for telephone connections and for mains power - but heed the warning that the mains adaptors do not convert voltages.

The telephone adaptor kits also include a phone socket tester to tell you if it is safe to connect your modem. This can save time and avoid damage to modems caused by the different currents that telephone exchange systems use.

Of course, this assumes that there is a socket available. Tracing the cable back from the phone sometimes terminates in the dreaded, hard-wired junction box. The bold road warrior may whip out a screwdriver and set about the connections with a handful of crocodile clips and a pioneering spirit. This requires one of two attributes: a deep understanding of international cabling standards; or a pig-headedness beyond belief. True, you can attempt to partially dismantle the phone itself and determine which are the mouthpiece and earpiece wires.

Alternatives

Desperate situations may require desperate measures but check out the alternatives first. Many hotels have computer systems and you may be able to negotiate to use their facilities, send and receive e-mails or even to connect your own equipment in one of their offices. Plan B is to carry an acoustic coupler which attaches to the handset of virtually any phone.

A final warning is that your connection settings may have to be changed. Most countries have upgraded to digital or "tone dialling" phones but some countries, such as those that formed the Soviet Union and many developing-world countries, still have analogue exchanges. Modems are not sensitive to such subtleties but the connection settings will have to be set to "pulse dialling" within Windows, or whatever operating system your hand-held device uses.

The best advice is to check out the requirements and facilities available in the countries that you intend to visit. If you know where you will be staying, ring the hotel to ascertain what problems you may encounter. If you get really desperate, the local British embassy or consulate may be able to help out in parts of the world that are developing as markets for UK goods.

If all else fails you could always rely on finding a printer and a fax machine or, if a wireless connection is available and all you have is a phone, short messaging system is always a brief but usable alternative to e-mail.

Acoustic couplers offer a mobile solution

The all-purpose solution for global roamers is the acoustic coupler. It is not the most professional-looking solution but it is the most flexible. Effectively, this is a microphone and speaker combination that attaches directly to the telephone handset. It may seem like a crude way of connecting to a phone but it usually works anywhere in the world and does not get the user involved in any electronic complexities. Strap it on and away you go. The caveat is that handset designs vary. It may not be easy to connect a coupler and the system relies on getting the phone's earpiece as close to the microphone as possible - the same goes for the mouthpiece and speaker.

All will go well, if somewhat noisily, as long as the phone link is of reasonable quality. A good acoustic coupler will have volume controls to help and it may be necessary to play around with these to get a reliable connection. A main advantage of a coupler is that it can be used with almost any type of phone, including public pay phones - but make sure you go armed with plenty of coins or phonecards.

Finding an acoustic coupler is the main problem. Since modems have become the main connection option, manufacturers of acoustic couplers have almost disappeared. Teleadapt currently stock a unit for £129.99 and its Web site also contains some good advice on technology for world travel teleadapt.com.

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This was first published in September 2000

 

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