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A New Option to Save on Web Access for Overseas Travelers

If you've been stung by high international roaming bills, consider packing this low-cost modem for your next business trip.
May 18, 2011
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/219663

Small businesses facing the horror of four-figure phone bills for international roaming may better served working with another small business for their data access, rather than a major carrier like Verizon, Sprint or AT&T.

If there is one overlooked commodity that is getting as pricey as oil and food, it's Web access for firms that do business internationally. Rates for international data roaming are measured in what amounts equal to tablespoons. And unless businesses are careful, checking your email just a few times while abroad can get pricey.

One company, San Diego-based XCom Global, is seeking to make a business out of these helping people avoid these crazy prices. It sells several lower-cost data-access tools for use outside the U.S. The company leases data modems to users on a daily basis, and then charges a flat fee for unlimited Web access overseas. Rates start at $13 per day, or about $100 per week. A carrier like Verizon charges about the same price for a month of access, but caps usage at 70 MB, or enough for roughly a few dozen emails and web pages.

To get a feel for how this flat rental, unlimited usage approach can help small firms, I arranged to test a top-of-the-line XCom Unlimited aXcess MiFi Mobile Hotspot ($15 per day) while I worked in Venice, Italy, for about a week. My verdict? The unit can be pricey for those who spend a long time overseas, but for a week or so, the XCom modem may be a good option.

What It Is
The MiFi Mobile Hotspot is like many other portable mobile web-access tools. It offers up to five users Wi-Fi access using an in-country cell network. The modem supports most modern international cell standards, provides up to 4G speeds in countries that support the technology and is accessed like a hotspot, say, at Starbucks. You turn on your PC or Mac, look for a local hotspot, and depending on the security configuration, you log in and -- poof -- you’re online. The modem is delivered and returned via FedEx. The device must be back in the company’s hands by a predetermined day or significant penalties mount.

Why You Might Like It

  1. Enough web access to do real work, at a good value. For those of us who have tried to do our jobs overseas, struggling with the tight data-access regime of international roaming, XCom is a revelation. Simply rent the device on the company web site, and, when it arrives, toss it in your luggage. When you get to where you’re going, pull it out, charge it up, turn it on and log on. And it’s like you are in the home office. There are none of the roaming issues, Wi-Fi manipulation or other pains that can plague overseas data access. For $15 a day, I was free to do my job.
  2. Clear focus on the busy international data user. XCom deserve points for aiming this product at a specific niche: the overseas traveler. The modem is configured to handle many different networks at once. Little tinkering was required to get online in Italy, though the country has many carriers. It also comes in a handy carrying case with a full set of international chargers and adapters. It supports both Macs and PCs, and the manuals are clear, easy to use and well-supported online. Just about anybody can get this to work with a bit of practice.

Why You Might Not Like It

  1. It may not be as much of a bargain as it sounds. While $15 a day isn't a lot for international data usage, that does not mean the XCom Mobile Hotspot is actually cheap. For short stays, this device can make some sense. But stay overseas even 10 days and suddenly your bill is $150 for the device, which, if you don’t use it enough, is no longer so economical. And keep in mind you are paying this on top of your existing phone plan. And XCom also charges insurance of roughly $4 per day.

    What's more, the company is not kidding about getting its equipment back on time. You continue to pay daily rentals fees until the unit is back in company hands. So if you misplace it or get lazy about sending it back, costs can skyrocket.
  2. Some features are complex. As easy as this unit was to use, advanced features were a challenge. For example, the unit comes with no security code enabled for its Wi-Fi. That makes it less secure, since anybody within range can log on. I recommend enabling a password for office work, which involves several tricky log-ins and remote router configuration. Also, battery life is a few hours at best, though the unit does come with a back-up battery. Essentially you are tied to a wall outlet using this tool for any length of time.

What to Do
If you see your future in growing an overseas client or two, by all means give the XCom Mobile Hotspot a try. It gives you the means to stay in touch while closing the deal. The company’s modems are affordable, easy to use and offer terrific access to the Web. Just make sure you understand the costs, don’t keep the unit too long and know what its technical limits are.

While nearly anything may be preferable to paying the high prices of international data roaming, XCom could be an attractive option.