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Tools for the Traveling Worker

Away from your desk? No problem.

For decades, computing has fallen into two broad camps. On the one side, there have been the folk for whom portable technology has been the technology. On the other side stand the classic office-worker types, for whom any computer that isn’t bolted to a desk isn’t a real computer. For many years, I was a desktop kind of a guy. My choices of hardware and software revolved around a cubicle. It’s probably an attention-span issue: I don’t trust myself to work without three walls of taupe to block out distractions.

But during a recent trip abroad, I needed to appear available even when I was abroad, and my desktop computer helped. Even when I was four time zones away, I was available by phone and e-mail, thanks in part to some sage advice from travel guru Susan Stellin, the author of “How to Travel Practically Anywhere” ($15.95 from Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Stellin’s travel wisdom and my own research turned up a way for me to stay in touch

Haben sie Cellphone?

In Europe, everybody seems to have a cell phone–only they call it a mobile over there. The difference is that they use different frequencies over there. The European standard for cellular transmission, GSM, operates in 900Mhz and 1800Mhz bands. In the States, those bands had been allocated to other purposes, so we use 850Mhz and 1900Mhz.

So if you want to use your own cell phone in Europe, you need to have a quad-band phone that handles all four frequencies. I didn’t have one, but a quick trip to the T-Mobile store told me I was due for an upgrade, and for a mere year’s commitment to my existing service, I could get a spanking new Motorola V188 for 20 bucks. I signed up right away.

Then I realized that even though T-Mobile operates in the UK where I was traveling, the plan I subscribe to doesn’t cover that network. I’d be sicced with ugly roaming charges.

Picking your Lock

Fortunately, there is a solution: It’s possible to pick up pay-as-you-go SIM cards at more or less any mobile phone store, and they’re not too pricey. These thumbnail-sized slivers of plastic slide into most cell phones and provide prepaid air minutes. For 40 dollars or less (at today’s exchange rate), any O2 store, T-Mobile, Orange, or other mobile shop will sell you such a SIM and give you almost two hours of talk time and a spanking new mobile phone number.

But there’s another step you need to take first. When you buy a phone from a cellular service provider, that phone will be locked in to the network that you bought it from. If you call their support line, they’ll usually provide the unlock codes for you. You provide your phone’s model and serial number to hand (you can often get the serial number by pressing *#06# on the keypad). The support tech takes these details and sends them off to the phone manufacturer, who then relays the unlock code to you via e-mail.

Problem is, it can take them up to a week to email me those codes. If you’re phone’s a Nokia model, it’s faster to do it yourself. Or you can pay some high-street electronics stores to unlock your phone, but you could end up paying twenty bucks or more for the privilege. If you plan ahead, your cellular service provider will do this free.

Once the phone’s unlocked, you can slip in a foreign SIM and start using the local network right away. And that’s step one in receiving all your home phone calls. The rest involves a little desktop work.

Going to My PC

Before traveling abroad, I’d subscribed to the venerable remote-access program Go To My PC and got VoSKY–a peripheral for Skype that I’ll review more thoroughly next month. The long and short of it is that with this USB-powered box, you can redirect calls from your home number using Skype and pay only a couple of cents a minute.

With GoToMyPC software installed onto my home PC, which I left running and online while I was away, I could log on to at any Internet cafŽ, and I’d be looking at a slice of home from abroad. I set the redirect phone number to my new mobile number, and I was ready to receive calls.

(Without trying to cheat the good folks at GoToMyPC, I should point out they offer a 30-day free trial that should cover you for short trips. Otherwise it’s twenty bucks a month or $179.40 for a year).

GoToMyPC is also the best way to handle e-mail on the road. Once logged in, you look at the image of your own PC and use your own e-mail software with its own address book. When you consider that Euro keyboards slap the @ sign on top of the apostrophe instead of the number 2 key, it doesn’t take much thought to see the benefits of point-and-click addressing while you’re abroad.

So there you have it. With a bit of fuss, you can stay in touch while in foreign climes. But heed this advice: Don’t do any of this if you’re on vacation. This is for work travel only. If there’s one thing I learned from my European excursion, it’s that they take their leisure seriously, and so should you. Being on call 24/7 is no way to do it.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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