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.
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.