Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem—they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

Using a smartphone as a visitor to Japan

I just landed in Narita and came to my friend’s apartment in Koenji, Tokyo last night, coming to Japan for the first time since I finished graduate school last March, and for the very first time as a tourist and not a resident.

I had been looking at the options for having at least some basic mobile phone service, as I have been able to arrange cheaply in every other country I have previously visited, but the solutions in Japan are less straightforward, or at least less obvious. (On a tangent, this article about the state of Internet access in the remote island territory of American Samoa is pretty neat.) I DID find an option that works well, but it took a little bit of poking around and some minor hoops.

For example, in Taiwan I had no trouble getting a prepaid SIM card by showing my passport, here in the US (somewhat surprisingly, with all the Patriot Act and related security in recent years) you can still buy a prepaid phone or SIM, and on my first visit to the Philippines I actually got a SIM card out of a vending machine! While it has always1 been easy for a resident foreigner to sign up for a mobile phone contract, the providers will quite understandably not offer a one or two year contract to somebody who is only legally allowed to remain in the country for 90 days.

While Japan has long had perhaps the best wireless communications infrastructure in the world, it also has some of the least flexible ways to register for service. While prepaid SIM cards for voice and/or data are the norm, or at least commonly available, in most countries, such options are far more limited in Japan, and those that do exist tend to be unavailable to temporary visitors.((Prepaid service is very widely available in the US, for both voice and data, and although still not very popular overall is gaining fast in popularity.)) Options for international data plans do exist, but even the better deals fall between pretty expensive and ruinously expensive. (The NY Times just had a post discussing some other options.)

Prepaid phone service does exist, offered  companies such as au or Softbank, but for some bizarre reason these are still structured as one year contracts, and are therefore also not available to visitors. For example, if you look at Softbank’s page explaining how to register for pre-paid service, it clearly states that one needs either proof of Japanese citizenship or visa that has over 90 days remaining. It is certainly possible for a visitor to have a friend in Japan to arrange service for them, but that is not only kind of a hassle for both parties, but also may not be an option for visitors who do not (yet?) have friends in the country.

Perhaps the most popular option for foreign tourists is Softbank’s Global Rental service, which will rent either a Japanese phone or a SIM card for use with an unlocked 3G phone. The prices for this service are not too egregious for very light use, with a bare SIM costing for ¥105/day, ¥105 per minute for outgoing calls, and ¥15 per domestic SMS. Incoming calls and texts are free, like in basically every country outside of North America. Data, however, is another matter. Although Softbank thankfully caps the data charge for a single day to ¥1500, it takes only slightly more than 1 megabyte to reach that level, which means that any smartphone that sees even minimal use will incur ¥1605/day, plus whatever you spend on phone calls or texts. I don’t know about you, but ¥48,150+ seems like a lot to pay for one month of using my smartphone on a trip to Japan.

But there is a much, much better option.

Enter B-Mobile. B-Mobile is a MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which means that in contrast to wireless service providers such as NTT Docomo, KDDI AU or Softbank, they do not own any infrastructure of their own but instead purchase access to a wireless network at the wholesale level from the physical network providers, in this case from Docomo, and then re-sell it to retail customers in packages that the original network provider does not offer.

As soon as I stepped off the airport bus outside Shinjuku Station I walked across the street to Bic Camera and asked the first staff member I saw in the mobile phone area where the B-Mobile products were. She had no idea what I was talking about, and after running to check told me that they didn’t have any (申し訳ございませんが、当店では取り扱っておりません), but I suspected she was wrong and asked a man in a spiffier uniform. He immediately took me over to the counter and grabbed a box from the shelf behind it. For those looking to purchase these SIM cards in a store, note that they do not seem to be on display; you have to find someone who knows where they are kept in the back. I chose the 1GB/1 month 3G/4G option, for just under ¥3500, and purchased it along with an external battery pack for my phone.

Note that it is possible to order these SIMs online, using either a credit card or by COD means Cash On Delivery, which is something that used to be possible for mail order products, but now is pretty much restricted to delivery food. Japan is actually safe enough that when I ordered a ¥100,000 digital camera from Amazon some years back they let me pay COD.">COD) The downside of this, for many foreigners, is that the page is only in Japanese, as is the activation directions. If you do not read and speak Japanese, you may need someone else to help with ordering and configuring the setup.

Before I explain the annoying caveats, I will state upfront that it works great once configured, so you know this isn’t a waste of time.

I stepped out of the store and grabbed a coffee and a seat at the Starbucks just below. Popping the SIM card into my phone, an unlocked GSM/HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus and rebooting it did not give me any immediate results, only showing the notification screen message “EMERGENCY CALLS ONLY [NTT DOCOMO]”, which I had even with my American T-Mobile SIM installed.

After looking at the packaging I realized that it needed to be activated by phone, but this presented a minor obstacle. For some reason, the activation can be done one of two ways, either by calling from a Japanese mobile phone, or by calling a help-desk and paying a ¥2,500 handling fee. I nearly considered doing the latter just to get going… but the helpdesk closes at 6pm, an hour earlier.

I then switched tactics slightly and pulled out my laptop, a recently purchased 15” Retina Macbook Pro, to try the Starbucks WiFi. I was under the impression that it was a pay service as it had been years before, and was ready to begrudgingly spend a few hundred yen to get online for an hour, but was pleased to see that they have switched to a free service at some point. I was much less happy to see, however, that in order to use the free Starbucks WiFi, you have to register for a login account, which cannot be done from the login page. Yes, that’s right. To use the free WiFi you have to register in advance while already connected to the Internet. For your reference, the address for doing this is http://starbucks.wi2.co.jp. Do yourself a favor and register right now, even if you don’t expect to be using it anytime soon. Thankfully I was sitting next to a young Japanese fellow in a standard black suit, who was kind enough to lend me his smartphone for a minute to register myself an account and get online.

After I had both my laptop and phone connected to the free WiFi, I found a Japan-resident friend on Gchat and asked her to use her mobile phone to call and register my B-Mobile SIM, providing her with the unique registration code included on a slip of cardboard. Make sure not to lose that! (Incidentally, the SIM itself is a DOCOMO card, with B-Mobile branding used only on the packaging.) I suppose I could have done that call with the phone I borrowed from my Starbucks neighbor, but with the mention of a ¥2500 surcharge for using the helpdesk, I figured it would be rude to risk some unexpected charge on the phone bill going to a total stranger, rather than a friend I can repay in the event that it happens.

After spending another half-hour or so at the Starbucks before I was able to get in touch with the friend whose apartment in Kouenji I am staying at in Tokyo there was still no indication that my SIM card had been activated, even after rebooting again. It was on some pretty solid WiFi, so I was unsurprised to maintain Internet service for a little while after leaving the Starbucks, but when I glanced at my phone to check the time while waiting for the train and noticed that it appeared to still be signed into Gchat I was rather confused.

You see, although the phone appeared to have no mobile network service, it was in fact connected, and may very well have been connected the entire half-hour I spent waiting in the cafe. Very weirdly, it has a constant notification saying “NO SERVICE: Selected network (DOCOMO) unavailable”, while also constantly showing zero bars for my mobile network connection. And this is despite having a perfectly good Internet connection, even good enough for me to make and receive Skype calls.

Presumably this is because the OS, configured as it is for a phone rather than a tablet, is puzzled by an account that has data service, but is not allowed to place or receive calls, and therefore fails to display the proper indicator. This surprised me, as the same Android OS is also running on tablets, such as the Nexus 7, that also support SIM cards and HSPA+ data connections. Presumably on a Nexus 7 or similar device the mobile network indicator properly indicated when it is connected, and doesn’t harass you about not having voice service, so I wonder if there may be a way to tweak the phone version to fix this minor bug. After all, it is a little bit annoying not knowing whether or not you are connected until you try and access the Internet and either succeed or fail.

One final note for now is that this particular card provides 1GB of data or one month of service, which ever comes first. 1GB may not sound like all that much, but Android 4.x has extremely good tools for tracking and limiting your data usage, and if you are sensible enough to streaming media or file downloads while not connected to WiFi, I would not be at all surprised to see 1GB last for an entire month.

  1. At least since the first time I was in Japan, in 2002. []