Friday, 20 November 2015

The Amazing Race 27, Episode 9

Krakow (Poland) - New Delhi (India) - Agra (India)

“We have to rely on them to find it because there’s no Google here,” Justin says to his partner while they wait for their rickshaw-wallah to confer with a bystander about the location of their next clue on The Amazing Race 27 this week in Agra, India.

“I know. I don’t like this,” Diana responds.

Isn’t Google everywhere? What could the racers be talking about?

Justin was speaking in shorthand, but there’s an underlying truth to his outburst, both in the insight that, in an important sense, “There is no Google here” in Agra and in much of the world, and in the implication that travellers like him — if they don’t have any navigational “Plan B” — have no choice but to trust and rely on local people.

Google tries to map all the inhabited parts of the world, even if as a for-profit company it puts the most effort into the places withe densest concentration of money. Google may not have the best digital maps of Agra (see my earlier comparison of digital maps for international travel), but Google Maps would probably be sufficient for the racers’ and many tourists’ needs.

As for access to online maps, Agra is actually a pretty big city, not a village, with cellular voice and data service in most locations. In India, as in most of the world, far more businesses, homes, and neighborhoods have cellphone coverage than have landline telephones available.

It’s not even necessarily too expensive to use Google Maps on your smartphone in Agra. For customers of T-Mobile USA, India is among the countries where unlimited (slow) cellular data is included in certain monthly plans.

These plans are an option for anyone who can open an account with T-Mobile in the USA, and isn’t travelling outside the USA for more than three months at a stretch.

How that time limit for international roaming is interpreted and applied is potentially significant for many long-term travellers. According to T-Mobile USA’s terms and conditions:

[Y]ou are not permitted to use your Device or the Service in a way that we determine… Results in more than 50% of your voice and/or data usage being off-net (i.e., connected to another provider”s network) for any 3 billing cycles within any 12 month period.

Different customers have gotten different stories about what this means from different customer service representatives, but I recently got some official clarification about how this limit on international roaming is implemented from Clint Patterson, Senior Director, Communications at T-Mobile:

People travelling overseas for a majority of the year will likely get a better deal from local prepaid services. [This may or may not be true, depending on how long they spend in each country. - EH] If a customer’s usage is majority overseas in a three month period, we’ll notify those customers after three months that their global roaming may be suspended…. This is per line, not per account.

If you are still abroad at that point, you can have your T-Mobile service for that line suspended (with the bill reduced to US$10 per month) for up to three more months while still keeping your phone number. If you are going to be out of the USA for longer than that — more than six months in total — you’ll have to port your phone number to another provider, or it will be lost.

To return to the original question, even if you can afford it — on a T-Mobile roaming plan or with a local SIM — the more insolvable problem is that, in Agra as in much of the world, cellular data connectivity exists but is too slow to make effective use of online mapping apps that depend on downloading new map images every time you zoom in, zoom out, or look at a new area on the map. That includes Google Maps, the default map apps on Android and iOS devices, and Web-based maps.

Asking local people isn’t always such a bad way to find out how to get where you are going, even where Google is available. Asking for directions, unlike consulting your smartphone, is a conversation-starter, and might prompt your informant to tell you about other places you should see or things you should do in addition to, or instead of, what you were asking about.

But if you want to have the option to use digital maps in places with slow connectivity, you need to prepare in advance by installing an offline mapping app and the map data for your destination, before you get to a place where connectivity might be nonexistent, too expensive, or too slow for such large downloads.

Here Maps (formerly Nokia Maps) compresses map data enough that you can download map data for the entire world onto an 8GB flash memory device in your phone or tablet, and not have to worry about it again. Most of the other offline map datasets, such as Open Street Maps for Android, take up more memory, so you have to download new maps for each each country or region you plan to visit.

If you aren’t sure if the map app, translation app, or other app you plan to use while travelling will work offline or with very slow connectivity, test it in “airplane mode”. Almost all voice translation apps, for example, only work if there is a fast enough connection to send audio clips to a server in the cloud, and won’t work offline or where the connection to the server is too slow.

You can’t count on the availability of digital maps or other apps, however, even if they work offline in airplane mode. Smartphones and tablets are the top targets of pickpockets and snatch thieves, and vulnerable to loss and breakage as well as theft. Skilled labor to repair your device might or might not be cheaper where you are than at home, but in a country with import restrictions or duties, parts or replacements might be prohibitively expensive or unobtainable at any price. A warranty replacement for your electronic device sent from abroad might be subject to duty of several times its value, and to interminable delays and bureaucratic hassles in customs. Backups of your device stored “in the cloud” may be useless if you don’t have a replacement device to which to restore them.

The thief who stole your device may first have “shoulder-surfed” your device password, by watching or filming you while you signed in to your device. The first thing an identity thief will do is delete your device backups and change your account passwords.

Paper maps are a possible “Plan B” for navigation, but what about the other things you use your phone for? The more you rely on your smartphone or some other electronic device(s) for navigation, keeping track of your contacts, storing or managing passwords, or any other function, or plan to do so while travelling, the more important it is to think about all the ways you use your device, and what you would do about each of those uses without your device.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 20 November 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Thanks for the info on the three month limit. I travel with a T-Mobile monthly account and wasn't aware of the limit. I was actually out of the country for just over three months this year and T-Mobile didn't complain. I was over by a couple of weeks - July 15 through November 31.

I have been more concerned about apparent lack of coverage in the south of France, although I also lost service for a couple of days in Berlin.

Posted by: Kathy, 7 December 2015, 13:32 ( 1:32 PM)

Google Maps Offline has been available for almost a month:

In any case data service in Agra (at least on Airtel) is pretty good, at least in real life.

Posted by: Google, 7 December 2015, 13:46 ( 1:46 PM)

Thanks, Google, for following my blog, and for the update. The press release you linked to dosn't say how large an area Google Maps apps will now allow to be downloaded for offline use. I'd prefer to be able to download maps for a large area, or for the whole world. Otherwise, a common problem is to find that you have "gone off the map" by moving outside the area you have downloaded.

Even where the connection to the local cellular data network is adequate, the limiting factor in using real-time apps can be international connections between the country where you are and servers where the app functionality is hosted in the USA or elsewhere. Many countries have grossly inadequate international bandwidth, especially if many local users are trying to access servers abroad.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 7 December 2015, 16:04 ( 4:04 PM)

I have a moto G3, but really use my Garmin etrex 20 for directions. It is small, unobtrusive, and capacious. I can get openstreet and other maps for it that i can load on a large capacity memory card. This little GPS lets me select just the map I want. Of course I can record routes, etc. While I have the same maps on my phone (ourxmaps app), the GPS has a much smaller profile. It uses AA batteries available everywhere. It loves sunlight. It is also illuminated when I want. It is waterproof and tough as nails. Bike mounts are cheap (RAM makes good ones.) The GPS is the best speedometer/odometer. It even has ANT for cadence if that matters. So much for my experience. Worked great in Japan. It had the streets, temples, etc. etc, in Romanji. Don't know about India. BTW, Thomas Stevens went across India in the 1880's on a bike with one of those huge front wheels. You have probably caught it on Project Gutenberg: Around the World on a Bicycle.

Posted by: jim stiles, 7 December 2015, 21:10 ( 9:10 PM)
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