Beam Me Up...Please!

Like me, you may have ideas of getting some work done while in Europe. You envision you and your laptop settling down for some productive labor—maybe on a balcony outside your hotel room overlooking a lake, perhaps with a cool beer at hand.

After a couple of hours, your document finished, you want to email it to a colleague in the U.S. The difficulties encountered in this simple seeming scenario may be instructive to those who dream of sending and receiving work files via the Internet, thereby continuing to be a contributing part of a business while far away across the Atlantic.

We do not refer to sending and receiving brief messages from an Internet café—of which there are plenty. That is relatively easy. No, we're talking about creating work product on your own computer and sending and receiving such documents via email, again, from your own computer.

The sad fact is, getting to the Internet from a less than five-star hotel room in Europe ain't easy. From 99 percent of European hotel rooms, your only possibility is a dial-up connection to a service like America Online. Of course, the room has to have a phone (the wall-jack for which has to be accessible), you must have the correct adapter plug (there's a different one for each country), and the line has to be analog, not digital, otherwise you incinerate your modem.

We recently went equipped with all the adapters, as well as a phone line tester and even EuroSurge, a somewhat bulky device, which claims to protect both computer and modem against voltage surges that are common in Europe. Also required is a local access number for an online service provider, AOL in my case.

First night, modern hotel near Montreux, Switzerland. Move furniture to get access to phone plug. Line tests okay. Hook up computer to phone line, open AOL software and ask it to find local access number. Software messages that internal modem will dial the U.S. to find a number.

Even though the AOL software says it will, it won't. This we were told two days later by AOL in a call to their foreign access help line (703-264-1184, user pays the toll from Europe). We should have obtained a list of access numbers before leaving the U.S. And anyway, we also learn from AOL, most of the numbers won't work with our Macintosh G4 Powerbook with OS X operating system.

In Germany, for example, there is a single number for Macs running OS X. So, not only does one pay a monthly AOL fee, plus an approximately 7 cents per minute AOL overseas access charge, but also the long distance phone charges assessed by the hotel, which, if you plan to spend an hour or so downloading email attachments, can be substantial.

Of course, AOL limits the size of files that can be sent via email, so, as it was in our case, the whole question of access may be moot. One final note on AOL: if you plan to use it for overseas access, you must have been an AOL member at lest 60 days before you travel.

Even if AOL were not expensive, restrictive, and painfully slow, there are other Internet access issues. When tested by our $19.95 line tester, about one out of three hotel room phone lines came up dirty or simply would not yield a dial tone through the adapter.

Our laptop is also equipped with an airport card, which enables it, via Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) technology, to connect without wires or cables to certain high-speed Internet networks. The availability of such networks in public places such as airports, public buildings, major hotels and even coffee shops, is growing, but still scarce in Europe. At the end of the trip we were able to make a wireless connection to the Internet from a Starbucks coffee shop in Berlin. The necessary hardware is not expensive - less $100 to install an airport or Wi-Fi card in a laptop.

Right now, the easiest and cheapest way to send and receive simple emails from Europe, or perhaps check your stock portfolio, is still an Internet café or other public Internet access point, such as are found at many rail stations. These stand-up Internet kiosks charge about $3 for 15 minutes online. Internet cafés charge about $5 for 30 minutes. And forget AOL, sign up for a free email account at Yahoo! or Hotmail.

Those still determined to connect using their own laptop, might try a North American ISP that has roaming or reciprocity agreements overseas. One such is Toronto-based SoftCom, which has POPs (point of presence) in many major European cities. Another possibility is iPass, which has POPs everywhere. Both SoftCom and iPass provide phone numbers and dialing utilities that you can take abroad.

And generally speaking, the easiest place to make such a connection is from the business center or guestroom of a five-star hotel. Perhaps the best info on this subject is the World Wide Phone Guide.