Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Mobile internet access

I recently returned from a holiday in Australia, being a geek I had to make the decision whether or not to take my laptop and risk spending my holiday checking up on work emails.

However, the curiosity of seeing how much of my day-to-day stuff I could do from the other side of the world got the better of me, also it can be very useful to plan routes and book hotels on the move. I don't actually travel internationally in my job but I thought I would see how easy it was to get connected to the office throughout the trip, for free if possible. My goal was to establish a VPN tunnel from my laptop back to our office and thus access any system I would be able to from my desk. This includes all the other computers in the office, the servers, printers, our remote sites and also allow me to use IP telephony and video conferencing.

On the road

Beginning on the M6 down to Heathrow I fired up my Macbook (as a passenger of course) and connected it via Bluetooth to my Nokia 6233. There is a great little utility for the Mac called Launch2Net which configures your mobile phone data-connection completely automatically, I've not found anything for Windows that comes close to it's simpliciy. Launch2Net did its stuff and within a few seconds I had a high-speed 3G data connection. I was able to establish the VPN link and log onto my work computer to read my mail. I even managed to log into messenger for a quick chat with a friend. The connection dropped out after a few miles which shows that the technology isn't quite perfect yet (on the M6 anyway) but it wasn't bad considering we were travelling at 70MPH.

Heathrow airport

These days all Airports have hotspots so at Heathrow it wasn't very difficult to get online. I just logged on using our BT Openzone account. Whilst being charged by the minute the PAYG of £4.50 per hour isn't too bad I suppose. I took the opportunity to reply to a few emails.

In the air

We flew with Singapore Airlines who had in-flight broadband provided by Boeing up until 2007. Unfortunatly Boeing withdrew the service due to the market not taking off (excuse the pun). Perhaps it was just slightly ahead of its time as I saw a lot of people taking laptops onto the plane.

Singapore airport

Again there were plenty of hotspots and the local WiFi provider was a member of the international Wireless Broadband Alliance with BT Openzone so I hoped to be able to sign in. However because our Openzone comes via Freedom2Surf I couldn't work out the correct login. On the way out of Singapore I had more luck and found a free hotspot from Malaysia Airlines which worked perfectly.

Singapore Hotel

The hotel had chargeable internet connectivity provided by Intertouch so I loaded up KisMac to see if I could find a free network. I expected a few networks to pop-up but the 40 in range from my hotel room surprised me, about two thirds were open so I picked an innocuous sounding one and got an internet connection. To ensure privacy I created a VPN back to the office and forwarded all traffic through it so no one could sniff out my passwords etc. I wouldn't really advise connecting to an open network unless you can use a VPN like this because you really don't know if the network is actually a honeytrap. There were a couple of suspicious signals in range including an ad-hoc wireless network called "Free Internet" which I thought was best avoided.

Melbourne CBD Hotel

This was a cheapo stopover motel in the middle of Melbourne. It was fairly basic so no wifi provided. I picked up about 20 networks in range but only 2 were open and I couldn't connect to them. However if I'd really been desperate my phone data connection would have worked at this point or there was always the ubiquitous Starbucks wifi hotspot down the road.


We were staying in a small town near Melbourne called Warragul. The house already had ADSL so there was no problem connecting to the VPN here.

On the road in Australia

At one point I needed to find a street address in Australia but was in the car without my laptop so I decided to try my mobile phone web browser. There was no problem establishing a fast data connection with Orange's international roaming arrangement and thankfully the address I was looking for came up as the first result in Google so I didn't have to fiddle around on the tiny screen for too long.

How well does it all work?

All of the technology I was using has been around for some time and although there are constant improvements it's still a long way from perfect. The mobile phone companies do a good job of organising international roaming but it's an expensvie way of getting online, wireless hotspots are widespread in built up areas and hotels but can be a bit hit and miss cost wise. One hotel I stayed in only had a tariff of $25AUD a day even though I only wanted to get online for 5 minutes to check my mail. The best internet is free internet and it seems where ever you are, as long as you're in a built up area, you're never far from an open wireless network.


The most common problem I came across with the PPTP VPN was the wireless network having the same subnet as the VPN network I was dialing into. This was an issue when I came to connect to my office PC because the MacBook was looking on the local wireless network for a non-existent computer rather than looking on VPN network. To get around this I added a route for my office PC ( in this example) over the VPN with the following commands on the Mac:

sudo su
route add -interface ppp0

You could route the entire subnet with something like:

route add -interface ppp0

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