Expanding our personal network

Sounds creepy, doesn’t it? Like I’m going to corner you at a party and explain how

Beautyvision is more than just a franchise opportunity… It’s a way of looking at the world with the total absence of fear.

It’s not like that.

We got pretty tired of picking hotels and rental apartments based in part on their advertised internet connectivity. Which pretty much always is more hassle than it’s worth. Therefore, when I heard about O2‘s “dayflat pack” rate of €3,50/day or €25/month on a prepaid surfstick, I thought it was a great idea. We have a pretty reliable internet connection at home, and don’t need a mobile internet contract because we’re not usually out on the road. But when we are traveling (in Germany) €3,50 for the odd day’s worth of mobile broadband with no further strings attached is a great deal. No more getting the unluckily situated hotel room, the rental apartment running out of surfsticks, paying through the nose to SwissCom at the hotel or T-Mobile at the airport.

“Whew!” I thought to myself. “This sounds great!”

Reading a little closer into the system requirements, I saw that linux — of course — isn’t supported. Googling a bit, I found you can’t even fake it via Wine.

A little more googling revealed stuff about usb_modeswitcher and umtsmon — programs which enable your linux box (or netbook in this case) to manipuate your phone’s (or surfsticks’s) SIM card while it’s plugged into your USB port or PCMCIA slot. I noticed all the posts on this topic were about two years old, and apparently largely irrelevant now that Ubuntu supports all those things more or less out-of-the box.

But I’m on Kubuntu, which always seems to lag behind Ubuntu in terms of networking, and was still struggling until I coughed up for the Huawei E5 mobile WLAN router.

Wearing the TrekStor badge, this is my Huawei E5 model
This cute little device will let me and my four favorite WiFi capable devices surf on the cellular signal from that O2 pre-paid card: Sarah’s phone, our little netbook, my iPod touch, plus two other WLAN-capable devices (perhaps those of travel buddies), all simultaneously. Best part: somehow it knew all the settings like APN and dial-up number (huh? dial-up?) or, it read all that stuff off the SIM card…not sure which. Kubuntu and umtsmon needed me to tell them those things (and I was clueless as to what to put in there).

There is at least one caveat here: the easiest way to tell O2 you want to cash in some of your prepaid credit in the form of a dayflat pass is to use the software that came installed on the surfstick’s tiny little drive. That requires Windows (which I only use at work, and not at home) or a Macintosh (OK, got one of those). But my Mac is not a mobile device. How then, can I activate a dayflat pack while underway armed with only the SIM card (and surfstick) and no Windows/Mac OS with me?

The secret is that you CAN purchase a daily or monthly pack without the O2 “Mobile Partner” software. You just put that O2 prepaid SIM card into any GSM phone, boot it, and then dial *104#. I’m not sure what this is called in English, but the text that appeared on my phone said something like “service command” (I think was “Dienstbefehl“). From there you can enter numbers on your phone’s keypad to purchase a dayflat or monthly pack out of your pre-paid account’s available credit. Then pop that SIM card back into your surfstick or portable WiFi router and you’re good.

6 thoughts on “Expanding our personal network”

  1. ian in hamburg

    Hi Cliff,
    Neat little unit! You mentioned that at the bloggers’ weekend. About that O-two prepaid stick – is it 3.50 per calendar day or 3.50 for 24 hours from the time you use it? I’m guessing per calendar day, right? Anyway, it sounds like a good deal like you say for those of us only on the road once in a while. Do you know if that flatrate is only good for Germany, or all of Europe?

  2. cliff1976

    Howdy Ian,

    It’s €3,50 per calendar day. From whenever you buy until midnight that same day. But it’s apparently an inexact science for O2. I’ve read messages on their forums where users report discrepancies by as much as 45 minutes. Also, you apparently can’t stack up a couple €3,50 days together and buy two days’ worth — those “packs” don’t run concurrently. Therefore, to ensure you’re not wasting any money, you should wait for the confirmation SMS messages which are supposed to arrive when your “pack” has expired, or send an SMS to 5667 (“L-O-O-P”) containing the word “STATUS” to see what pack you’re currently using (the response will be something like “DAYFLAT”). Then you can send send “STATUS DAYFLAT” to 5667 to see when that pack will expire. Not very helpful for the dayflat packs, but critical for the monthly one (known as “INTERNETL”, I believe) — because those don’t run according to calendar months, but rather a 30-day period.

    Two pieces of good news:

    1. SMS messages to 5667 are free.

    2. The mobile WLAN router has a built-in SMS function, so you don’t have to pop the SIM into a real mobile phone to do all these things, although I think you DO have to purchase those packs via mobile phone — if there’s a way to buy a pack out of your prepaid account’s credit via SMS, I haven’t discovered it yet. Remember that those “service commands” aren’t SMS messages — they start with an asterisk — and the Huawei router only supports SMS messages that start with a plus or a number.

    We plan on getting one of those 30-day packs soon for some upcoming travels around Southern Germany. Owing to the 12V cigarette lighter charging adapter for our tiny little netbook, and the fact that the router can simultaneously charge via USB and provide the WLAN network, our road trip should be pretty much one uninterrupted stream of zeroes and ones.

    Also, we tested it the router with Skype on my iPod touch yesterday, calling my parents (on their phone line) in Michigan, and it worked flawlessly. What we couldn’t make function: uploading a photo (I think it was a 5MB JPEG file) to flickr just wouldn’t happen. Not sure if it was related to a file size or upload data rates or some sporadic atmospheric condition or what. We’ll have to do some more trials.

  3. cliff1976

    Oh yeah, and that’s a Germany-wide and not international flat rate.

    You can use the stick outside of Germany too, but I certainly couldn’t afford it das ist Schweineteuer. Better to get a pre-paid card for the country you’ll be visiting — the mobile router should have no problem with that.

    Oh, and by the way, it’s really easy to control / configure the mobile router via its web interface (i.e., it’s not OS-dependent, unlike the O2 surfstick). You point your browser to “http://e5.home” and set up your preferences, like whether to connect to the internet automatically (not advisable for dayflat users), what the SSID and WPA key of the network should be, the admin password, etc.

  4. Courtney

    Remind me, next time I’m in DLand, to ask you about that pesky o2 stick I bought. I got it, used it and all its free credits and then could not for the life of me figure out how to buy more days. The whole process of buying days with their program is absurd and unclear (um, yes, dial #104, but how does one do that with no keypad or calling program on the computer?)

    And to answer Ian’s question — it is calendar day but it doesn’t end at midnight. It says it does but every night I used it, I passed into the wee hours and it still worked… just didn’t work again when I awoke in the a.m.

    1. cliff1976

      Well, there’s software you can run on Windows or Mac computers embedded on the stick I bought to load more credit onto your stick’s account. But you have to have admin rights on Windows — not necessarily feasible if your employer own the machine — and maybe also on Mac. Either way, no joy for Linux users. In that case you have to reload the account by an offline means, like at an ATM or via Überweisung, or credit card on the O2 website…which of course presumes you have a working internet connection!

      You can take the SIM card out of the stick and put it into an unlocked GSM phone (i.e., a phone which accepts SIM cards) and issue the commands that way. This also works.

      When your calendar day pass runs out, they start charging me 0,09€ per kB. So whenever that happens, you want to be aware of it — a typical short skype call will be in the range of tens of MBs.

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