For a recent two-week vacation in France, I wanted to get the netbook and the iPhones (SIM-locked) online, without having to hunt down hotel wifi or other hotspots. Unfortunately, the situation is not quite as simple as in Germany, where there’s many reasonable priced options. Here’s what I managed to find out.
Orange offers a prepaid data plan (“journée Internet max”) for 3 Euros a day, but by various accounts, it is limited to web access only (no email etc.), and might even have restrictions on the sites you can browse to. I didn’t try that. Orange also offers an iPad option.
SFR offers a special “iPhone 3G” tariff that seemed quite interesting at first: full web access as well as email, in multiple packages up to 20 euros for 20 days and 500MB. They specifically claim that it only can be used with an iPhone. To get it, you buy a pre-paid SIM card (SFR La Carte) from any of the SFR stores, and one of the iPhone 3G recharges (see the bottom of that page). The recharge is a long number that you can punch in at a voice prompt after dialling 952. I had a French speaker help me with that. At least in Paris, most of the SFR store people I’ve encountered speak passable or very good English, and they were all friendly and helpful, and did help with the activation. You then configure your device to use APN “wapsfr”, and off you go.
With the iPhone package, data connections are indeed limited, but a lot more that I originally thought: surfing was limited to the SFR mobile portal (m.sfr.fr). Whether this was due to the fact that I was using a Mifi to establish the data connection, or due to some real limitation on the part of SFR, I’m not sure, but I’ve read elsewhere that others have encountered this block as well.
Even when accessing the mobile portal, you must use Safari on your iPhone, or make your other browser appear as an iPhone. For Safari, enable the Developer menu, and change the User Agent to one of the Mobile Safari entries. I believe there’s a number of Firefox Add-ons that allow you to change the User Agent.
The good news is that email access via IMAP and SMTP worked just fine, with all our accounts configured.
To get full internet access, I used OpenVPN from the netbook to connect to my server running on one of the ports usually used for email. This way, I could move all the internet traffic through the VPN, and have full internet access from the laptop.
Finally, to be able to browse from the iPhones as well, I used tinyproxy on the netbook to enable the iPhones to use the netbook as a proxy that connects through the VPN. This gave us full internet access throughout our journey.
Getting things purchased and activated was a bit of an adventure, but was fairly straightforward in the end. I was positively surprised by the coverage (minimum EDGE, mostly HSPA), even though we went to some slightly remote places (small villages on the Loire, Mont Saint Michel). All the descriptions claimed that services were limited to “France métropolitaine”. Also, I was surprised that we seemingly didn’t exceed the 500MB limit, even though the traffic counter on the Mifi claimed we had.
I can recommend this only to people very familiar with networking technology and the willingness to spend a couple of hours in the hotel room fiddling, instead of on the streets of Paris. So plan to bring your favorite geek along for the ride 🙂