Getting online in the Philippines

In Bo's Cafe

Passion fruit ice tea, a comfy chair, sunlight and the netbook.

I’ve temporarily left Hong Kong and am currently visiting the Philippines to catch up with my friend Deep and his lovely fiance. Seeing as I keep getting freelance work in, in spite of actually wanting to enjoy the tropics without having to spend too much time doing writing for other people (but you know how it is with freelance work…) then I’ve had to quickly learn about the way phones and Internet work here. Seeing as this is apparently useful info for other people apart from myself, then I thought I’d put it down in a post.

I am currently in Cebu City, where getting online is very different from what I’ve gotten used to in Hong Kong. Firstly, mobile Internet isn’t quite there yet. It’s cheap, though. You can get a week of unlimited mobile Internet for 250 pesos, which is about £4.
I’ve borrowed a Sun Cellular sim, which is a normal sim they’d sell you to put in a phone. If you go to a mobile store and ask to be a broadband sim on its own, they will tell you it’s impossible and tell you to buy a dongle for about 1000 pesos to go with the sim. It’s great if you actually need a dongle, but I already have one (which I left in HK, duh) and also have my Galaxy, which I can use instead. Seemingly, we are at an impasse, but, what they don’t tell you is that you
can charge (or “load” as they say here) a normal sim with the same prepaid card you’d use for a dongle and it’ll work just as well. When you buy a 250 peso broadband “load” card, it actually says on it that you can use it for a normal prepaid sim card and tells you exactly how to charge it. I stuck the Sun sim in my Galaxy S2 to use as a mobile access point, but to begin with, it was connecting at insanely slow speeds. Turns out it was connecting at EDGE, instead of 3G. I waited a day and switched a few things on and off in the phone and now it’s doing 3G and above, so when it’s not cutting out or losing signal, it’s perfectly fine. It does tend to occasionally revert back to EDGE, though, annoyingly.

I also borrowed a “Smart Bro” dongle from the Smart network, but that seems to cut off quite a lot of the time (with a festive trumpeting sound effect to boot). Having both at least means that one of them is likely to work, so I can have something working about 80%-90% of the time.

Luckily, unlike Hong Kong, Cebu seems to have a huge cafe culture and the cafes here (unlike Hong Kong’s dark and depressing cafes) are bright, friendly, cheap and plentiful.
I am writing this sat in a Bo’s Coffee, a friendly chain with comfy seats, big windows and a pretty inoffensive soundtrack.

I’m guessing it’s the American influence that has created Cebu’s abundance of LA-style strip malls – those 2-storey buildings arranged around a central, open car park with a big light-up sign telling you what businesses live there. They make a pleasant enough place to sit in a cafe and work, so all’s well. If you’re luckly, you might even be able to find a shopping centre / mall that has wifi you can use for free (though it’s apparently often slow or flaky) and the local Ayala Mall has lovely open spaces to sit in with lush plants and a laid back atmosphere. I’ve been missing that so much in Hong Kong.

Apparently once out of the city, mobile Internet (and even mobile signals on occasion) become almost nonexistent, so your best bet is to find a resort with wifi or take your laptop to one of the restaurants or beach bars that offer it. Even then, it might be a bit too slow for some lines of work. I will report more from the field when the time comes.

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