Communications Tips for Travel Around the World

Your Communications Tool Chest

There are three tools that you should get familiar with before you travel: SMS, Skype, and VSee.  There are many other tools that provide similar features.  These are the ones that are already in widespread use at our organization, and which experience has proven actually work in the emerging world.

SMS – Traditional SMS mobile phone texting is still the best solution for the broadest availability, to send and receive communications anywhere in the world.  98% of all humans live within coverage areas; > 5.5 billion humans (75%) have a phone supporting SMS [1].  It’s not fancy, but it works and most people with mobile phones use it.  Delivery is not confirmed, but is generally reliable.

Skype [2] – For audio and video, Skype is king; it works over poor Internet conditions, degrades nicely as Internet conditions worsen, and deals with intermittent Internet calmly and rationally.

VSee – VSee does a great job at multi-person team meetings.  When Internet is not good enough for video, calls can fallback to audio easily.  It tolerates some degree of Internet unreliability acceptably, but not to the same extent as Skype.  Its use is disabled over our BGAN satellite technology.

Most communication is insecure, despite various marketing claims.  If you need secure communications, please consult an information security expert.


[2] This is referring to normal mass-market consumer Skype.  Skype for Business, formerly known as Lync, is a completely different product and is not recommended for emerging world Internet.

Get a SIM As Soon As You Arrive

Mobile phones require a tiny chip called a SIM, which is used for billing purposes.  It usually costs less than $5.  Until you have a local SIM, your phone will not work, even for placing calls.  Some US plans will allow you to use a roaming SIM, but the rates tend to be exorbitant in the emerging world.

You can ask your hosts to provide a loaner SIM for a few days while you are there.  This provides you with immediate access to local calling, which is an important safety benefit.

If you travel extensively, provides both outgoing voice calls and an American phone number which works broadly throughout most of the world.

In some countries, a phone will auto-configure for Internet access using a new SIM correctly within about ½ hour of putting the SIM into the phone.  In others, an all-afternoon trip to the local carrier office is required.

Tech Advice: Frequently, the only thing the carrier will do is set the APN settings correctly; these settings’ values can usually be found online.  On Android phones, the APN settings may be set manually under “Settings|Mobile network settings|Access Point Names|your carrier”.  Often, only “APN” and “MMSC” need modified.  Select the APN as Active, and turn Airplane mode ON and then OFF.

TIP: Robert Soult’s Offline SIM APN Database Pro is an Android App that contains correct APN settings for most carriers and locations.  It does not require Internet access.

Regular Communications

Why are some leaders able to travel constantly and yet still take care of complex business, while other managers’ minions dread their travel schedule, knowing that deadlines will zoom by without feedback or approvals?  Effective leaders set realistic communications expectations.  They meet on a regular weekly basis with their direct reports, regardless of their travel schedule.  They handle critical path items even when they are on the road and it’s inconvenient.

When traveling in the emerging world, plan on devoting ½ day to trip activities and ½ day to keeping the team functioning smoothly and dealing with email, crises, etc. on the home front.  Infrastructure challenges are huge and in many parts of the world, life just takes significantly more time and energy.  Try to have one major goal or TODO for each of three parts of each day: morning, afternoon, and early evening.

Use SMS text messaging for brief ad hoc interaction, and Skype for one-on-one communications.  For team meetings or meetings with multiple people, choose VSee.  If you need secure communications, contact an information security specialist.

Email is often an effective communication tool because it can work over poor Internet by drips and drabs.  Alternately, email can be checked over a good connection, then responded to while disconnected from the Internet; outgoing emails may be queued up and ready to send when Internet becomes available.

Email may be configured to preview only the start of a large message, downloading the remainder upon request.  Setting an “out of office” message will remind people that non-critical items should wait until your return.

Coming up in the next post: When Things Don’t Work