On-line in Egypt

Getting on-line in a developing country is a fiddly and expensive business, as Andrew North discovered in Egypt
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I could not have made things look more suspicious. Spread around the bathroom of my Cairo hotel room was my laptop, a modem and an array of gadgets, plugs and screwdrivers. I had visions of the hotel staff barging in with the police and accusing me of spying.

The reason for my bathroom antics was more prosaic. I was trying to get on-line to CompuServe in Egypt, via my Powerbook and US Robotics modem. If I could get hooked up, I would be able to send and receive e-mail and keep an eye on the news wires. I had set off with the latest gadgetry to make modems work on the move - the so-called Executive Telekit - neatly packed into a washbag-sized, zip-up case. Consisting of a telephone, a tone dialler, a teletester (more of that later), screwdrivers and a selection of cables, adaptors and crocodile clips, this kit allows you to connect to any working phone system in the world, the suppliers claim.

The first problem was the geography of my hotel room. The only power point was in the bathroom, a good four metres from the only phone socket. Perhaps this hotel had suffered a spate of socket robberies because all the electrical fittings in the room itself were wired straight into the wall. I did not want to rely on my Powerbook's batteries, so the bathroom was the only place I could set up shop. Fortunately, my modem lead reached the phone socket.

I should then have been able to plug the modem straight into the phone socket, using the adaptor I had been supplied for Egypt. But what I had in my bag looked nothing like the fitting in my hotel room. In fact, the plug I had was for Turkey. There was no option but to dismember the phone socket and "hard-wire" my modem to the phone system.

When I opened the socket, I was confronted with six coloured wires. This is where the teletester - a yellow plastic device with a diode at one end and a US phone plug at the other - comes in handy. It allows you to isolate the two wires you need for the modem. One end connects to the crocodile clips, and you then try every combination until the diode lights green. It was a simple task - after trying a couple of combinations I had the right one.

With the crocodile clips still connected to the phone wires, I removed the teletester and plugged in my modem lead. With no more than a screwdriver, the crocodile clips, the teletester and a US-to-UK phone adaptor, I was linked to the Egyptian phone network. The other bits and pieces in the Telekit proved superfluous. But I would always take the full kit - you never know what sort of phone system you will have to tackle.

The final task was to make sure the modem dial-up software was correctly configured. Just two settings seemed to be crucial. The "Listen for dial tone" setting should be disabled because a UK-configured modem will not recognise an Egyptian dialling tone. Second, I had to make sure the modem was pulse dialling, as opposed to tone dialling.

My bathroom mobile computer system was ready to go. Now I could send or receive a fax, transfer data or text by modem, or take a trip into Egyptian cyberspace. Despite the unhelpful geography of my room, it took about 15 minutes to set up.

The only bit of cyberspace I could access locally from my own laptop, however, was CompuServe. I could not get a temporary account with Egypt's Internet service, and I was not going to dial my UK Internet provider. Quite apart from the extravagance of surfing the World Wide Web on an international line, it defeats the whole point of the Internet: you should be able to hook up anywhere in the world for a local call.

This is where the likes of CompuServe - the world's biggest on-line service company - comes into its own. It has 42,000 local dial-up ports in more than 150 countries, with plans for 80,000 ports by June next year. If you have a dedicated CompuServe dial-up point, you can have full Internet access. But this is not an option in Egypt. I had to use the modem software to dial up a local network which provides a gateway to foreign networks, including CompuServe. This meant I could not click the icons on the friendly CompuServe Information Manager introductory screen but had to go into "terminal emulation", where I was dealing with an old-fashioned, line- by-line computer screen. It also meant that while I could use e-mail and get into newsgroups, the Internet bulletin boards, I had no chance of reaching the World Wide Web.

Using CompuServe via other networks attracts high communications surcharges, even if you are using basic services. The hotel phone bill can also mount up. I achieved my aim of avoiding international lines and managed to keep in touch. But I also learnt that going on-line in developing countries is an expensive business, and can cause havoc at bath time.