How to get Internet access in Rome – and how not to

Relaxing in Rome

I had an awesome vacation in Italy this summer with my awesome wife, Whitney Connaughton. Highly recommended. But ugly American that I must be, I made too many assumptions about getting online, thereby frustrating my ability to…get online.

It all started so well. Just off the high tech marvel that is Italy’s high speed train from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the city center, I smiled at the gleaming shops full of stylish clothes, delectable pastries and, obviously, mobile phones galore. Well, not quite. There was no sign of the biggest Italian carrier, Telecom Italia Mobile, also known as TIM. But no worries. Down on the lower shopping level was a store for Three, a brand I’d recently considered in London. I strolled in with my guide book knowledge of the local lingua and an aging but unlocked Samsung Nexus S cell phone in need of a SIM card. And so started my quest to find Internet access for a week in Roma.

The guys at Three had a quick answer for me: no. Seems my phone runs on globally widespread GSM and third-gen HSDPA networks and they were selling somewhat obscure GSM-ish UMTS compatible service. They told me I needed to get a card from the Wind store down the hall.

The Wind guys were happy to supply me with a free SIM card, a brand new Italian phone number and a 20 euro month-to-month data package. Sweet.

I got back to our cute rented apartment in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, put in the card and waited for activation. And waited. And waited. After about 36 hours, I made an unhappy discovery plumbing the depths of my Nexus S phone’s settings screens. The Wind network was also the obscure and incompatible UMTS. Ugh.

It turned out that only the TIM folks had real GSM cards. Grabbing a wee bit of wifi at a coffee bar, I searched for nearby TIM outlets — second floor of the central train station. Easy as pie. But not so fast. When I went back to the station, I discovered that the store was closed for renovations.

Italian mobile phone store is closed

A few days went by with me all offline and getting very mellow and gelato-filled. Eventually, on a Saturday night, I passed another TIM store that had just closed minutes earlier. And it was closed all day on Sunday. And it opened at 10 am on Monday, an hour after we had to grab a train to Naples. So I never actually got my phone online.

What about regular old free wifi, you ask? Surely, there is some easy way to get wifi in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities? Well, yes and no. Yes if you can decipher this screen you could in theory get free wifi in Rome. Actually, they do have it in English, too, but I couldn’t get to that link somehow when I was Italy. I did manage to get to the sign-on screen. Free wifi required a sign up process that I could not navigate without translation. And of course translation wasn’t available without Internet access. Catch 22? Pretty much.

Back home and researching this post, I found travel writer Jessica Marati’s incredibly helpful guide to getting on the free Roman wifi network. It only requires a cell phone number and, hey, I managed to get one of those, even if I couldn’t actually use it on my phone. Next time?

So what are the lessons for other travelers looking for cheap or free Internet access in Rome? Prepare ahead of time. After having such a ridiculously easy time in London a few months back, where a simple vending machine at the airport offered multiple brands of SIM cards for all kinds of phones and tablets, I assumed Rome would be similar. It was not.

If you’re not carrying a UMTS-compatible phone, be ready to go data only. In fact, both carriers I visited were selling cheap wifi hotspots (kind of like Verizon’s mifi in the United States) and I could have made do with just that. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

And, yes, please use the comments to tell me — and anyone else who stumbles across this page — what I should have done. But be kind.

  • Martin

    UMTS isn’t an ‘obscure’ protocol; it’s the definition of 3G data services. HSPDA/HSPA+ is an extension of this. AT&T and T-mobile both use UMTS. All the UK networks use UMTS.

    I have absolutely no idea why your phone didn’t work with the Italian networks; but it’s nothing to do with UMTS :).

  • zemm

    I agree with Martin. I don’t know Wind specifically but the Galaxy S supports GSM (quad band) and UMTS (900, 1700 and 2100) according to GSM Arena. AT&T uses the 850 band that isn’t common in Europe.

    According to Wikipedia Wind runs GSM and UMTS (doesn’t specifically say what frequency, except that Europe generally uses 2100). You should have at least had GSM/EDGE connectivity so you would have a “working cell service” for voice calls and receive the text message. :)

    Maybe you just ran into an activation glitch or something. :(

  • Thanks for leaving a comment. UMTS, also referred to as WCDMA sometimes, and GSM are not compatible, though some phones sold in Europe have dual capability which may be why you are confused. See http://www.umtsinfo.co.uk/gsmvsumts.html for example.

    Or see here: “In addition, almost all UMTS phones are UMTS/GSM dual-mode devices, so if a UMTS phone travels outside of UMTS coverage during a call the call may be transparently handed off to available GSM coverage.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Mobile_Telecommunications_System

    If you wish to delete this erroneous comment, that’s fine.

  • Hi Zemm, as I replied to Martin below, UMTS is distinct from GSM though there are phones sold in Europe which have dual capability. GSM/EDGE is distinct from UMTS, although, again, some handsets do both.

  • Seems like there is also a frequency/standard mismatch between the US and some Italian carriers:

    Most UMTS licensees consider ubiquitous, transparent global roaming an important issue. To enable a high degree of interoperability, UMTS phones usually support several different frequencies in addition to their GSM fallback. Different countries support different UMTS frequency bands – Europe initially used 2100 MHz while the most carriers in the USA use 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. T-mobile has launched a network in the US operating at 1700 MHz (uplink) /2100 MHz (downlink), and these bands are also being adopted elsewhere in the Americas. A UMTS phone and network must support a common frequency to work together. Because of the frequencies used, early models of UMTS phones designated for the United States will likely not be operable elsewhere and vice versa. There are now 11 different frequency combinations used around the world—including frequencies formerly used solely for 2G services.
    http://learntelecom.com/telephony/3g/interoperability-and-global-roaming-in-umts-gsm

  • zemm

    As I said your Nexus supports all four GSM bands (along with UMTS 2100 at least) so you should have at least been able to connect for voice, text and some data. There is no CDMA-only version of the Nexus is there? But then it wouldn’t have worked in the UK.

    I would say _all_ (non-Japanese) UMTS handsets support GSM as well, due to GSM being much more common when 3G UMTS was first launched, and they use the same SIM. Of course the air interface on UMTS is based on CDMA (instead of the TDMA-based GSM) but the protocol is still “GSM”. Sort of like the difference in running TCP/IP over DSL or cable.

    Sorry I accidentally said “Galaxy” instead of “Nexus” but when I said holds true.

  • Hi!
    I read your post.
    I want to report a new internet service in Rome, very usefull for all foreign tourists.
    see more on http://www.witourist.com;
    Witourist allows to all foreign tourists the internet connection in mobility by their pcs, tablets or smartphones directly….without italian sims, without roaming cost or complicated log in…
    It is all very simple and economic.

  • Willian

    I had a great experience when I traveled to Brazil with Presscell: http://www.presscell.com/ . Wifi hotspots and cell phones are very simple to use and very efficient too.

  • Expresso WiFi Italy

    In Italy there is ExpressoWiFi.com for rent a pocket wifi for Italian journey: 4G/LTE, internet data unlimited.