My wife and I spent last week vacationing in Florence (Firenze), Italy. A truly incredible place for art and architecture. Naturally I wanted to have mobile web access while on vacation. The only affordable way to do this is with a local SIM card. Because I was arriving late the Saturday before Easter and knew the mobile shops were going to be closed until at least Monday, I decided to go the eBay route. There's always a bit of risk buying anything on eBay although I've never had a problem including buying a couple of SIMS in the past.
I found a WIND SIM from a British seller for 9 pounds plus 4 for shipping. The SIM arrived promptly and was still attached to its card with the PIN and PUK codes covered with scratch off paint so it was obviously unused. I figured I was all set.
When I landed in Pisa I fired up my Nokia N95 with the WIND SIM ready to go. Except that I didn't go anywhere being greeted with the ominous message "SIM registration failed" I made sure the card was seated properly and retried with no success. The SIM was either bad or unactivated. I spent Sunday soaking in the renaissance watching the Easter festivities around the Duomo.
I discovered that Easter Monday is a holiday in Italy too but several of the museums and all the historic churches were open so I had plenty to do. Tuesday morning we had a reservation for Uffizi Galleries, so after absorbing the greatest collection of Renaissance paintings in the world, I was ready to hunt down a mobile shop to see if I could get my SIM working, or if not buy a new one. Just a couple of blocks from the Uffizi I chanced upon an independent mobile dealer with a little paper sign, in English no less, advertising WIND prepaid SIM's. I told the proprietor my story and he punched my SIM number into some sort of WIND online system for dealers. The verdict; my SIM was really old, had never been activated and the number assigned to it had been recycled and given to another customer. My SIM was now expired and ineligible for activation. I purchased a new SIM for 10 Euros. The only documentation I needed to buy the SIM was my passport. The dealer activated it but warned that it wouldn't be functional for a couple of hours.
The shop was:
Porta Rossa Telefonia
Via Tavolini 3/R
That's just a block off the big pedestrian-only Via Calzaiuoli that runs between the Duomo and the Uffizi. I didn't get the proprietors name but he spoke English and was friendly and helpful. If you need to buy a SIM in Florence I highly recommend Porta Rossa Telefonia
The next step was getting a data package working. From reading Martin Sauter's Wireless News blog and the forums at the excellent PrepaidGSM.net site I concluded that the two Italian operators with the best data rates seem to be WIND and TIM. Martin's reported problems with WIND's 3G network but it's the cheaper of the two and my US model N95-3 doesn't have the European 3G frequency anyway. So how cheap is it? WIND normally normally charges a fairly high € .003 /KB (€ 3.00/MB) for GPRS, Edge or 3G data but they currently have several deals that are much less expensive. The cheapest called "Wap No Limit" gets you €750.00 worth of data each month for a mere € 3.00. That's about 244 MB which I figured would be more than enough for a week of web surfing and email checking.
When I put the WIND SIM in the phone it setup the access points and added a browser link to the WIND mobile portal automatically. Pretty slick, I wish every operator did that. This feature may not work on all handsets so if you need to set up the data access point manually it's very easy. The only thing you really need to set up is APN name of internet.wind. No proxy, login, password or DNS settings are required.
Setting up the Wap No Limit deal is somewhat involved but not hard. Here's how.
- Enable GPRS by sending an SMS to 4533 containing the words, gprs si. This is a free message. The first few times I tried this the message failed. I think that was because my service wasn't active yet. It was a good 3 hours before I was able to send the SMS. Once the SMS went through I received several text massages in Italian with what seemed to be special offers on text and MMS bundles. I surfed a couple of pages to verify that it was working. Don't get carried away at this point because the SIM only comes with € 5.00 on it and you need to have at least € 4.00 remaining credit to activate the € 3.00 Wap No Limit deal.
- Send another message to 4533 with the text: WIND NO LIMIT SI. It took a long time, about15 hours, for this to take effect. You can tell when it does because you will get a text message mentioning 3 Euro and WIND NO LIMIT. You can also check and your balance by dialing *123# to see if the 3 Euros has been deducted yet.
Using WIND in Florence worked very well. I had a strong Edge signal everywhere outdoors and in my hotel room. The signal held up pretty well in other buildings too. No glitches and the EDGE was fast enough to pull down a Google or Nokia map in about 10 seconds.
I only managed to use about 30 Euros worth of data out of the 750 surfing the web a couple of hours a day in the remaining 4 days I was in Italy. Not bad for 10 Euros total. The WIND NO LIMIT offer can only be used once a month and automatically renews every month. When it runs out you pay the regular rate the rest of the month. If your cash balance drops to zero, data stops working until you refill, even if you haven't used all the data funny money yet.
If you think you will need more than 244 MB/month WIND has other packages. The following table lists all the WIND data offers with their Euro value in "funny money" and in MB, actual cost in Euros and the text string to send to 4533 to activate. Only one of these offers can be applied per month.
|Package Name||€ Value||MB||€ Cost||Text to 4533 to activate|
|Wap No Limit||750||244||3.00||WIND NO LIMIT SI|
|i-mode NO LIMIT 50%||1000||325||6.00||WIND NO LIMIT 50 SI|
|Mega 1500||1500||488||8.00||MEGA 1500 SI|
|Mega No Limit||8000||2600||20.00||MEGA SI|
|Mega 15000||15000||4882||30.00||MEGA 15000 SI|
Here are a few WIND short codes and tips culled from the net. I tried all of these and they work and are free:
*123# - Balance (for texting and talking only, not data) in Euros.
SMS the word Saldo to 4155 - gets a text listing your data "funny money" balance in Euros.
How to change the voice response system to English
- call 4242
- When it starts with the menu in Italian press 6
- At the next prompt press 2 for English
- The menu will repeat in English: Info 0, Recharge 1, Balance 2 ... You can hear your data "money" balance by pressing 5.
WIND's rates for calls are pretty good too; € 0.17/minute for all calls to Italian numbers, € 0.50/minute to the US, Canada, India, the UK and most of Europe. All SMS including international are €0.12. There are all sorts of add-on packages for lower international rates, SMS bundles, cheaper calls to one number or to all WIND numbers, etc. See this page at PrepaidGSM.net for the details.
My prepaid WIND SIM even roams on ATT in the US although the voice rates are pretty bad, 2.00/minute to the US or Europe and 1.50/minute for incoming calls. Data is €0.0125 KB (12.50/MB), only a little higher than the $0.01/KB that ATT charges for casual data use.
We had a great time in Florence. It's a city you must visit for the art, wine, Cappuccino and gelato. And while you are there you can enjoy great prepaid data for a mere 10 Euros.
As for the bum SIM I picked up on eBay? I emailed the seller but he hasn't responded, I guess I'll have file an eBay and/or PayPal claim although I don't have much hope of getting my money back.