Jul 24, 2011

Mobile Internet Access in Germany for Open Source Road Warriors

Reliable Internet access is a long-standing problem for road warriors visiting foreign countries.  Open source developers in particular have problems reconciling travel with addiction to high-bandwidth network access from laptop computers.  Wi-Fi hotspots are scarce, costly, often slow, and in some cases complicated by inconvenient local laws like Italy's Pisanu Decree.  International mobile network access plans are ridiculously expensive or like DROAM have download limits that make them useless for serious programming.

The best solution in many cases is to look for a local pre-paid mobile access plan in each country you visit.   Mobile networks are widely available and fast in developed regions, and there are cheap plans that limit the amount you pay while providing solid connectivity.  On a recent trip to Germany I found a great solution for local Internet access from FONIC, which offers a prepaid data plan using their FONIC Surf-Stick.  The Surf-Stick is a USB modem that plugs into a USB port on your laptop and looks like the following. 

After you buy the Surf Stick, you can add money to it using credits purchased in local stores.  It's a relatively simple solution provided you understand a little about networking and can work your way through a bit of German.

The rest of this article is a description of how to use FONIC in Germany, as well as a review of the performance and a couple of downsides.  I do not have any connection with FONIC other than using their products.  You may have different experiences or find something better.  If so, please write an article about it.

Getting Started

I bought got my Surf Stick for 49 Euro at Saturn, a big German consumer electronics chain.  You get the modem itself plus a SIM card and one day of free surfing.  You can get also the stick from other FONIC partners or order it off the FONIC website.  Surprisingly it does not appear to be available in places like Frankfurt or Munich Airport.

The first step once you have the modem is to initialize the SIM on FONIC's site by registering yourself as a new user.  To do this you'll need to have your FONIC phone number and activation code ("Freischaltungsnummer"), which are written on the side of the envelope that contains the SIM and that you should try to avoid losing.  You'll also need a German address that you enter as part of the sign-up.  A hotel address is fine.  It takes a couple of hours after registration to complete provisioning.  

Once provisioned, connecting is easy.  Put the SIM in the surf stick and plug the stick in a USB port on your computer.  On Mac OS X, you'll see an application called "Mobile Partner."  Here are the steps to activate a connection: 
  1. Click the Mobile Partner app.  
  2. Enter your PIN (also on the SIM envelope) and press Return. 
  3. The application will stall for a few seconds while it looks for the modem.  Once complete it will show a screen entitled "Verbinden" (connect).   
  4. Click Verbinden.  A couple of pop-ups will appear and you are online. 
  5. When you want to drop the connection click "Trennen" (disconnect).  
You will now need to load some money into your account.  There's no way to top up online with a credit card--you either have to register a German bank account or purchase credits.  For foreigners the only practical thing is therefore to buy a credit, which is called an "Aufladebon."  You can get them at stores like Lidl, Rossman, and Jet as well as Esso gas stations.  Just ask for the following in German:  FONIC Aufladebon für 20 Euro, which is a 20 Euro credit and gives you 8 days of surfing.   I recommend buying this at the same store where you get your modem, which means the start-up cost is about 70 Euros.  

The Aufladebon itself a bit disappointing:  a printed receipt with a 12 digit number and some instructions in German.  Start your Mobile Partner app, connect to the Internet, and click on "Guthaben verwalten" (manage credit).  Select "Guthabenkarte aufladen" (load credit), enter your 12 digit number, and press enter.   Your credit is now topped up for a while.  You can check the level using the "Guthabenabfrage" (check credit) button.  


I used the FONIC modem for about a week.  It functioned well in every location that had at all reasonable connectivity.  FONIC handles transitions across cells really well--provided there's connectivity it seems to use the fastest available protocol, such as HSPA, and switches seamlessly down to lower capacity protocols like Edge if that is all that is available.  You can use it in a car or train without experiencing application problems--I used it on the Autobahn between Hamburg and Lübeck and it worked surprisingly well.   (Just be clear, somebody else was driving at the time.) 

With good connectivity, the rated speed is 7.2Mbps down and 5.76 upload, which is comparable to average household connections.  PDFs and similar files downloaded at 150K/sec.  Upload was similarly snappy.  

Applications like ssh and even remote debugging/profiling worked very well.  In my case this included running Yourkit Java profiler connecting into an application running on servers elsewhere in Germany.  I also hosted GotoMeeting web conferences.  The latency seems higher than DSL--typical latencies run about 100 to 200ms, which is about the same latency you get when connecting from the US West Coast to sites in Europe. 

Daily transfer limits are very competitive.  The current limit is 500Mb per day at full speed access, though in practice it seemed to cut off around 600Mb for me.  This is better than offerings from the big guys like T-Mobile and Vodafone.  FONIC implements the limit quite elegantly.  First you get a nice SMS that you are near the limit, followed by another that you are over the limit.  However, after that you do not get cut off.  The connection just switches to 64kbps until the next day.  This is still faster than the Wi-Fi connectivity in many hotel rooms.

If you don't want to wait for the friendly SMS message about limits, you can check your limits easily on using the Mobile Partner app.

Speaking of the app, Mobile Partner seems really solid.  There were no bugs, crashes or weird hangs the way you get with some of the US providers like Verizon's prepaid Internet app. I only ran it on Mac OS X but I would guess it is just as good on Windows.  


In general FONIC is outstanding.   Life is not perfect, so here are a few of the limitations I found.   
  1. German.  FONIC is 100% German, including the website and the app.  You'll need to know some German or make friends fast.  Also, the data plan apparently only works in Germany.  
  2. Phone connectivity.  If your cell phone does not work, FONIC won't either.  The nice thing is that you can have connectivity drop out for a bit while crossing cells in a train or car without losing TCP/IP sessions.  
  3. Occasional routing problems. On one evening in one particular location the FONIC modem did not work at all well, reporting ping latencies of 50+ seconds or dropping out entirely.  It was not apparent whether this was due to poor cell coverage or another issue.  It worked fine everywhere else.
There appear to be some competitors to FONIC but I have no idea how well they work.  One of the advantages of FONIC is that they have many partners in Germany that sell both modems as well as the credits.  That would also be a consideration in evaluating competing products.


Some day it may be possible to get decent mobile data plans that work for international travel.  Given the complexity of telecom regulation and the motivations of local carriers to prevent competition, you probably don't want to hold your breath until they arrive.

In the meantime, FONIC looks like a good Internet access solution for anybody traveling to Germany for more than a few days who needs constant, high-capacity access.  I was stuck in a couple of locations that had no network access, so it was a life-saver in those cases.  However, FONIC is also cheaper than hotel Wi-Fi and has better performance than many Wi-Fi hotspots.   If you move about or are uncertain about the quality of the Internet connectivity where you are staying, I highly recommend it.

If you know of similar plans for other countries, please share your experiences.  I would love to find something like FONIC for Italy, Spain, and the US.  


thomas said...

there are similar packages available for switzerland. the packages provided by Swisscom ("NATEL® data easy", www.swisscom.ch) and Sunrise ("T@KE AWAY PREPAID Dayflat", www.sunrise.ch) provide flatrate internet with no monthly fee: you pay per day, and only on days when you are actually using it.

both also offer (sim-locked) wwan modems, but if you travel around alot in different countries, it probably would make more sense to get yourself a simlock-free usb modem like the ones from huwai.

you can get it from various shops. unfortunately, swiss law requires you to register your sim with your passport/id, but it is afaik not limited to swiss recidencies. to top up, you buy prepaid cards in most grocery stores, on train stations, ticket automats and various other places.

on my sweden holidays, i got me a prepaid sim from telia for around €20 including sim & top up. it came with a 500mb limit per month, if you go over your speed will limited yet you will still be able to use it.

Anonymous said...

Fonic costs you 2,50€ per day. LIDL mobile, sold only in the LIDL food shops costs you 1,99€/day. They work with Fonic and actually the contract partner is Fonic. At Lidl you can buy vouchers for 15€.

Robert Hodges said...

Thanks, I didn't get a chance to check out Lidl but noticed they are #1 on the partner page. Do you know if they sell the modem itself and if so if it is discounted from the 49€ at Saturn?

Anonymous said...

Yes, they sell the modem too. Here is a link to product :
Currently 39,99€ with included 1,99€, just enough for a day of surfing. One can switch to monthly flat for 14,99€.

Tomaž said...

Also check Abroadband - sinle price for 50 countries.


Francis .S said...

For Germany you can get a SIM-Card for free from www.germansimcard.com by using the voucher "Germany" at check out (with 20 € credit on it). They deliver worldwide.
Regarding abroadband: 59 cent/MB is a bit too expensive, when Fonic gives you 500 MB for 2.50 €. The price per MB is then 0.005 €/MB...100 times cheaper?

Richard M. said...

I got the Fonic SIM-Card delivered to the States and payed like 30 $, with 20 € of credit included. The card worked perfectly in Germany in all cities I visited and since I used it only 6 days, I did not need to recharge the credit. Thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

just bought the fonic surfstick today and tried activated in just a few minutes ago and after a really bad experience with o2 and congstar this one works just as it's supposed to. I went on fonic and activated the sim without problem, it was also the fastest registration and i could chose if my data is used for marketing, doesn't really matter for me since i am us citizen and just using the stick for a few days, until i am back home in the USA.

After the online activation i plugged in the stick, hit next a few times on the installer and that's it. A text message arrived a few seconds later, saying the "Tagesflas" was activated and then i hit connect or "verbinden" and it worked and now i am online. It comes with one day of free use. Just it's already 8:41 pm of this writing and daily plans always count until midnight, so i will have to top up to use it after 12 pm.

After i bought top up cards or vouchers or however they are called with the o2 surfstick as well as the congstar prepaid sim, i bought only the stick this time to try if it works before i pay another 30 bucks.

The speed is fairly good with 2 mb/s on speedtest, the t mobile sim i use in the iphone now delivers 3 mb/s, though 2 is still higher than what i expected.

The surfstick also offers what they call "Kostenschutz", which means after 10 days of "Tagesflat"s the rest of the month's is free, which makes 25 euros for a month.