Anil John
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Anil John

International Travel and Mobile Data Access in Kerala, India

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It is 3:30 in the morning and I am finally on the ground in Kochi, India after more than 17 hours of flight time. I turn on my mobile phone to let my family know I have arrived in-country and I get … nothing. Not a good start, and it turned out to be a warning indicator of the trials and tribulations to follow in obtaining a mobile internet connection.

The plan, as I imagined it would happen, was simple. Visit Mom, take a smart phone and get it connected, use it for myself while in India, and leave it with her so that she could email the grand-kids, and allow us to have regular Google Hangout’s with both her and the other Grandma in Canada. In preparation for that, I bought her a new, unlocked, international GSM capable, Motorola G. A really solid and basic smart phone that got updated to Android KitKat right after I got it.

Oh, the hubris associated with first world expectations!

The travel blogs had warned me about the gyrations international visitors had to go through in India to get a local SIM card and I wanted to avoid that if possible. I had heard about a company called GigSky that was addressing this problem and obtained a SIM card from them and, via their service, pre-paid for a data plan with an Indian telco called Aircel. That was the option that became an immediate non-starter as soon as I landed.

To close out that particular thread, I contacted GigSky after I got back. Their customer service, from their CEO on down, has been outstanding. They immediately refunded me for the plan and also took the time to get details about the issue and informed me of the steps they are currently taking to resolve issues such as this. So even though their service did not work for me, I am left with a positive impression and wish them much success.

That was the start of my odyssey of trying to obtain a local data capable SIM card. Since I was planning on leaving the phone with Mom, we decided early on to get the SIM card in her name.

Day 1: Family recommends BSNL as the carrier. Called local store to verify they are open before making trip. Get there after 30 minutes of heavy traffic. They are open but won’t do business since they are painting the store! Check available network carriers on phone and don’t see BSNL as provider, so think that may have been a blessing in disguise. (I don’t realize until coming back to the US and doing a bit of browsing around that the available “CellOne” provider is actually BSNL)

Day 2: I see Reliance Communications (A big brand in India) as an available carrier, and fight 30 minutes of heavy traffic to get to the the Reliance Store in Kanjikuzhy, Kottayam, Kerala. At which time, the sales people are extremely reluctant to sell us a SIM card to the tune of recommending we try competing providers. We try some of the competitors, who inform us that they only have regular size SIM cards and do not have a micro-SIM card which is needed by the Moto G. Time and patience are wearing thin.

We end up coming back to Reliance and convince them to provide us a SIM card. At which point we are informed that, they don’t really have a micro-SIM card, but if we buy the regular SIM we can take it to a little hole in the wall store down the street, and they can “cut” the regular SIM to micro-SIM size! Hoping for the best, we put down some money which we are assured will be put into the pre-paid account as soon as the line is activated, and walk to the nearby store where a successful “SIM cutting” takes place.

Day 3: Get a SMS notification that the SIM has been activated and assigned a phone number. But no data or voice access. Another 30 minutes of heavy traffic fighting to end up back at the Reliance store. I am assured that the pre-paid amount I had left when I picked up the SIM card will soon be activated on the account. I still have faith in human nature, so I believe them.

Day 4: No connection. Another trip to the Reliance store where they cannot find any record of the money we had left with them to put in the account. Holding my breath, I pay some more money to put in the account and this time wait in the store and stare at them until I get a SMS notification that the money was put into the account. My internal dialog about the trustworthiness of the store personnel is not pleasant. But at this point, I simply want things to work, and am not interested in having an unproductive fight.

Day 5: I have connectivity. As in GPRS speeds. Sending e-mail and browsing brings back memories of my dial-up days with my U.S. Robotics modem. My wife makes the mistake of forwarding a Christmas pic to me to show Mom. It takes 30 minutes to download to the phone. My son’s comment “Dad, you are at least two G’s behind!” rings in my ear.

Day 7: I have had intermittent connectivity for a while and even posted a pic while having afternoon tea. But today I wake up to the message that the account has been blocked and to call the customer service number. I have no voice or data access. I call Reliance customer service on a land line, and am informed there is “some problem” with the ID that was submitted to open the account. No further details. Can’t be resolved remotely. Go in to the store. Yes, the same store.

My Mom, after seeing my issues with the phone and data access, wants nothing to do with the smart phone! Can’t blame her.

I am done, and decide to live off the grid! Best. Decision. Ever. (See pics on this blog post)

Final Note: One of my first actions after coming back to the U.S. has been to break my Verizon mobile phone contract and get a new contract-free phone with T-Mobile. Motivation? T-Mobile has free international data roaming included as part of their plan, and they will pay the Verizon early termination fees to break the contract. I refuse to go through this nonsense ever again!

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This blog post first appeared on Anil John | Blog ( The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer’s view in any way.

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