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Travel Tech

Travel tech – Getting & Sharing Mobile Broadband

If you’re doing more than a short vacation trip, you no doubt need reliable online access. In many countries, getting a mobile broadband device from one of the local mobile (cellphone) companies is the easiest way to go. Sure, in many hotels you may have WiFi, but not in all, especially lower-priced local “tourist class” budget hotels, guesthouses, posadas, hostels. The places with character and affordability, where my readers and friends are more likely to stay than the local Norteamericano or European chain emporium. Even with hotel WiFi, you are almost certainly on an unsecured connection, or at best the sadly weak, long-broken WEP protocol. Also it is often near-unusable in your room, requiring retreats to the hallways and lobbies. In the wonderful old dowager of Lima, Peru’s Centro, the Gran Bolivar, I had to leave my room and sit on the dusty old floral couches in the landings of each floor in order to get a solid connection.

If you’re renting an apartment, as my wife & I are for two months in Uruguay, having your own connection becomes essential. Yet it isn’t long enough a time to get a full-time fixed connection, such as the ADSL Banda Ancha (Broadband) from Antel, the government landline monopoly here. If we move here, we likely will get their ADSL broadband, but that’s not an option right now. So we investigated pre-paid no-contract mobile data sticks. Antel’s Ancel mobile division, at their Soviet-style office in Atlántida, had us take a number upstairs at the phone center, wait, ask for a SIM, then be told to buy a modem we had to go back downstairs, take a number, wait for our group of numbers for sales to be called at a 1:4 ratio of sales to dissatisfied customer service clients, wait some more, then be told that “no se vende modem hoy, no tiene. Es posible a Lunes.” (Come back Monday.)

So we popped across the street to the modern private store for competitor Movistar, and got a Huawei-built 3G UMTS/HSPDA USB Data Stick for $950 UYU, which is about U$S45 (U$S is how US Dollar-denominated pricing is shown here, which is most appliances, electronics, autos, and real estate. All else is in Uruguayan Pesos, as $).

If we wanted a 2-year contract, 3 Gigabyte/month would be $495, which is about U$S28/mo, with usage cap counted by half (thus doubled to 6Gig) for off-peak use. Without a contract, we’re paying about double pre-paid, at around $950 UYU for 3 Gig. This is comparable to the on-contract pricing in the US for T-Mobile, with a much lower modem purchase price.

But the “MiFi” equipment hasn’t seemed to make its way here. Those are the small business-card size mobile broadband devices with a built-in WiFi access point. So we could only get Banda Ancha Movil in a single-PC USB stick form. It of course went into our one reliable computer, the new dual-core Acer AspireOne Netbook we purchased the day before we left after Lisa’s laptop went south, but not in the “going south” way we hoped. My laptop, which I’ve slightly and temporarily resurrected, wasn’t going to cut it either on reliability or power as the sharing device. And the netbook has Windows 7 Starter, in which Internet Connection Sharing is removed along with many other normal Windows bits.  Yes, I know the hack to get an ad hoc network started (type “ad hoc” into the Start Orb’s search box. It still won’t start ICS from the link that suggests doing just that.)

Plus we’re an Android family: Two HTC Android phones (from TMo USA, now unlocked), and a Nook Color which runs a customized Android build but is an Android 2.x device under the hood. Android can’t do ad hoc WiFi. We needed an access point.

Enter Connectify. A great piece of software that enables the “hidden” WiFi access point feature and the virtual WiFi card that Microsoft coded into Windows 7 but didn’t include a UI for the average user to discover and use. Even the free version can share an existing WiFi connection over the very same WiFi adaptor (card, stick, or built-in). That’s right, you could be getting hotel or airport WiFi  on your laptop and using the very same laptop built-in WiFi, sharing it to your other devices (smartphones, iThings, companions’ laptops) without any other hardware, as a full Infrastructure Access Point, with WPA2 security. The free version says it does not share Mobile Broadband…but: It does with many data sticks, including the Huawei and probably many others. All I had to do was start the Movistar connection first, and the re-start Connectify. The Movistar broadband active connection showed up as one of the shareable connections.

I’m probably going to pop for the $29.90 US paid “Pro” version, which has a $10 discount coupon right now, so I can also share ethernet/landline/cable and other broadband sources, and have more configuration options. But even the free version is full of win.

Voilá, 4 devices sharing one Mobile broadband connection. No “tethering plan”, no external router, no second WiFi adapter with a bridged connection. Just a Windows 7 machine and free Connectify.

If you’ve got Windows 7 Home Basic or higher (Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate, or a corporate version, stop here now and enjoy the web. Go check your email. You’ve been warned. There be technobabble here. A whale of a lot of it.

Note on Windows 7 Starter. Which is on our machines for us new netbook folks, and some low-end full-size laptops bought in the USA, and a lot of  laptops sold outside the USA. Though neither Connectify nor any of the websites I’ve read for getting sharing working on it mention this, it appears that one of the missing bits of regular Windows 7 is the DHCP Server (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) that gives the devices attaching to your network an IP Address.

If you have Windows 7 Home Basic or higher, you shouldn’t have to do any of the Static IP technobabble I’m about to tell you; the built-in DHCP service should automagically assign proper IP addresses to all your stuff. Breath easy and go update your version of Angry Birds. For the rest of us cheapskates:

Without an address on the LAN you’re creating over WiFi, your other PCs and devices cannot do anything useful. I had to assign a Static IP to each device to get it to work. It of course has to be in the same subnet. Connectify will tell you the IP address it uses, and it will be in the “private” range of 192.168.xxx.yyy, where yyy is 1 (or 001, same thing) for the “router” (your Connectify machine providing the sharing), and XXX is something between 0 and 254. I don’t know if they randomize in that range, or always use the 81 which it is for ours.

So Lisa’s netbook is appearing to be an access point and internet gateway of 192.168.81.1. That means I had to assign Static IP addresses to my laptop, my Android phone, her Android phone, and her Nook, in that same range. Here’s how you do it on Android. The article is from 2009 and “Donut” (Android 1.5) but it works essentially the same on all newer versions. We’ve got Gingerbread (2.3) on my T-Mobile G2 (HTC Desire Z) and Eclair (1.6) on Lisa’s T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream, the original Android phone.) And here’s what to do on Windows.

You Mac and iThing folks are way too cool to have to worry about it; I think the Reality Distortion Field just bends the rest of the internet to your desires. Plus the only Apple device I have is a 1999 Purple iMac series 2 15″ CRT machine “upgraded” to OS9 from the original OS8.6. Don’t look to me for help here.

So what do you put in those boxes on Android, Windows, or wherever the heck they are in AppleSpace? Depends on the “subnet” that Connectify assigned, or that you told it to use (Pro version.) It will be 192.168.something.somethingelse.

Por ejemplo, 192.168.81.173, 192.168.81.174, 192.168.81.2. Subnet 255.255.255.0 (where the 255 means “number must be exactly the same as the router in this position” and the 0 means “any number below 255 is ok for an IP address on this sub-network.)

Finally, you need DNS servers (Domain Name Servers, the “phone book” of the internet, what turns facebook.com into a IP address number that actually is the site for Facebook.) You could just put the “router” (your Connectify IP address, e.g. 192.168.81.1) here, but I chose to use the 3rd-party high-reliability malware-filtered OpenDNS service, same as I use at home, with their primary and secondary DNS IP Addresses 208.67.222.222, 208.67.220.220. You also could chose to use the high-speed , free, Google Public DNS at 8.8.8.8, 8.8.4.4 as a simple reliable (but not filtered) DNS.

Muy Importante! If you want to go back to “regular” WiFi for coffeeshops, hotels, airports, and back home, you’ll need to set your WiFi connection back to “obtain an IP Address automatically” and “obtain DNS servers automatically” or whatever is the similar verbiage for your operating system.

In Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, you can avoid that hassle by putting the manual stuff I explained above into the “Alternate Configuration” tab of the “TCP/IP Properties” (“TCP/IP ver. 4 Properties” in Vista/7). Your PC will always first try to get automatic settings. After trying for a couple of minutes, it will revert to the alternate settings which are what you need for Connectify. Downsides are 1) It’s going to take a couple or 4 minutes before you get an IP address, 2) It’s going to nag you that it has limited connectivity and other nonsense, 3) every hour or so it’s going to break your connection for 2-4 minutes trying to get an automatic IP before you rinse-and-repeat at downside 2). Upside: you don’t have to switch settings around when you go out / go home. I tried that for all of two hours, got fed up with the constant drop/reconnect, and just hard-coded the Static IP/DNS into the main settings. When I can’t figure out why the Montevideo Airport WiFi doesn’t work, I’ll hopefully remember to change it back.

 

About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.

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