Like many of my peers, I travel frequently overseas. As such, I wrestle with the challenge of staying connected and using my smartphone while trying to avoid racking up crazy roaming charges.
Other VC bloggers have written about this topic, see recent posts from Fred Wilson and Brad Feld on their own recent adventures in Paris as they attempted to hook up various prepaid SIM cards and accounts in search of reasonable cost.
I had my own interesting experience recently in London that I thought I would share because it played out a little differently.
I landed in Heathrow at about 11am in the morning and put in a very brief call to my wife to let her know I arrived because my cell was 90p per minute. I had a few calls to make that afternoon when I might be in transit and uncertain of my preferred wifi+Skype solution so I wanted to figure out some kind of reasonable local mobile solution. And thus my adventure began.
My hotel was in Kensington. After washing up, I headed out into the street. I briefly checked in on Foursquare and Facebook, used Instagram to take photo of a British mailbox (sorry, “post box”) and make it look more brown, tweeted that it was crazy how Brits drive on the wrong side of the street, added a comment to a Yelp review of the local pub, and then I was ready to set off in search of a prepaid mobile solution.
About halfway down the street was a Vodafone store, so I stepped in and asked the gentlemen at the counter if they had prepaid SIM cards I could purchase and use in my iphone (which is unlocked). He gave me an odd look and said he would show me some options. I saw him reach below the counter and fumble about as if for a switch or a button, but didn’t think anything of it.
“For iPhones from the States, we only have monthly contracts, which start at about £100,” he explained.
“Really, there’s no kind of pre-paid as-you-go type service?” I asked. This was crazy to me. In 2011, how could there not be more flexible options? I was feeling quite frustrated.
At that moment, the front door opened, and a man wearing an Atlanta Falcons cap and a brown leather jacket came into the store.
“Is this him? Is this the guy?” he asked, gesturing at me.
The man behind the counter nodded coldly.
“Good!” he stepped towards me aggressively. “Now where are my SIM cards? What did you do with them?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered, backing away. “I’m just here on business from the States, I came in to get a prepaid plan so I can avoid getting gouged on these international roaming rates.”
“So you’re telling me you don’t know what I’m talking about? Why did I have the feeling when I got up this morning that it was going to be a pain-in-the ass kind of day?” He grinned and looked over at the “Premier League Text-to-Win promotion display to his right, as if he expected some kind of acknowledgment from the life-sized image of Wayne Rooney on the cardboard.
He reached into his jacket and pulled out what I initially thought was some kind of L-shaped wrench with a trigger, but turned out to be a large gun.
He pointed it over towards a RIM display case filled with inferior Blackberry touch screen smartphones. He squeezed once and the case shattered, with broken glass and the fragments of stacks of unsold Blackberry Torch 9850s left smoking in the mess.
“Are you from Apple?” I asked, suppressing a chuckle.
“You think this is funny, do you??!” he shouted, he wasn’t grinning at Wayne Rooney anymore.
He reached down and opened a hatch in the floor, revealing stairs down to the basement. A man came up the steps, he couldn’t have been taller than four foot six (sorry, 1 meter, 37cm) and was holding a cricket bat with the logo of some Pakistani team with which I wasn’t familiar.
The second man grabbed me by the arm and slammed me face down against the counter, his bat pressing against my back.
“Do you still think this is f–king funny?” the first man was screaming now. “Did you think you could steal from me and get away with it?”
“Ok, ok,” I responded, partly muffled by my cheek on the glass, looking down at the Nokia C5, an also-ran hybrid phone and music player never released in the US. “Maybe I did take a little off the top, but I deserved that share after you stiffed me on the Croatian thing, I know that Yuri only brought 2 cases to that meet on your instructions.”
“Ah, so now the truth comes out. But why do you treat me like a dog and think you can steal from me behind my back? If you have a problem with Yuri or anyone else who works with me, you can just come to me and we talk business like men.” The short guy released the pressure on his cricket bat to wipe his nose, but then pushed back down and I grunted.
“But now that you have stolen from me, it’s too late,” he continued. “And me and my friend here are going to have to send you back to America with fewer fingers than you came here with.”
My jaw tightened, but just then I could see the front door open and a man with sunglasses stepped in.
The two men turned to see him, but before they could react, he had reached out and smacked the Falcons cap guy across the face with the butt of his own revolver, crumpling him to the ground.
“Who the f–k do you think you are?” The cricket bat guy asked and started to reach into his jacket. Before he got far, the newcomer pointed his own gun down and pumped two rounds into cricket boy’s leg. He fell to the ground screaming, his hands clutching his thigh as blood began to seep through his pants.
I smiled for the first time in a few minutes – it was my old pal Jonesy, and was I ever glad to see him.
Jonesey took off his sunglasses and looked at the two men on the floor.
“Is anyone here giving my mate a hard time with his mobile plan?” He said with a grin.
I looked down on the ground at the shattered glass and blood and saw a stray SIM card. I picked it up and popped it in my phone – it worked.
“Now why don’t you run along and get to your tech conference, or meetup, or board meeting or whatever the hell it is that you people do,” Jonesey said.
“I’m on my way, thanks again Jonesey”
I stood up and shaked the bits of glass and debris off my jacket. I looked back one more time at the bodies on the floor and the mess in the shop and headed out the door.
What was interesting was that in the end, although the SIM card worked in my phone, I didn’t get the 10p rate that was as supposedly offered with that plan. It might have been because I still had an iPhone 3Gs which did not support the activation of that plan type. So you can see that even with all the expertise and planning the world, getting a decent mobile rate in Europe can be tricky. Hopefully, my experience can provide some guidance for others.