Vancouver Business Notes

Comparing Canadian mobile Internet offerings

This week I finally bit the bullet and purchased a high-speed internet connection in USB form so I can work outdoors with my laptop this summer. I have done much research and had many questions along the way so this article hopes to resolve some of those frequent and common questions.

Does it work on Linux?

Yes. It does. All of the "Internet Sticks" or "USB Internet keys" currently sold in Canada support Linux.

In Debian 6 the device will be detected within about a minute and will then appear in your Network Manager menu. Don't click the connection yet - you have to configure a couple things first. You should open your network connections, click the tab where your "modem" should be and select "add provider". This will ask you what country and provider you are using. Do that! It has the 'dialup' info for your carrier ready to go for you.

The other thing it will need to know is a PIN number if you are on Telus. I put that in the PIN field and the password field. I put my wireless number into the username fields as some forums recommended. Apparently does not like that field to be blank.

What is the coverage like? Which network?

All of the Canadian offerings are currently on the same network technology, HSPA+, which is a variant of GSM. Those familiar with wireless will recognize that Bell and Telus are jumping over to the GSM side of the spectrum. Because of this, I considered all operators equally.

Telus and Bell have roaming agreements with the prairie telecoms and I plan to do some traveling though that region regularly... so they win in this case. I have Rogers network access already with my cellphone but they only really have coverage in Manitoba and some parts of Alberta.

For those new to this, Rogers runs it's own network, while Telus and Bell roam with each other's networks. They all use the same technology, but there are effectively two big networks in Canada.

Fortunately, I checked in on Sasktel's LTE/HSPA+ rollout and the places I'm traveling to are already running on the "new" network Telus/Bell/Sasktel network. So from now on I should always have a connection while I'm in the country, having the new Internet stick and my existing Rogers phone to rely on.

What is the pricing like? How much data?

Even though I am a web developer I use very little amounts data each month. Seriously. My work is all done on the server, so I connect to that and all the dirty work is done there. No uploading/downloading/uploading process in my world. I also do not watch a lot of video or listen to music online.

Having monitored my laptop bandwidth for a few months I can say I use about 5gb of data on wifi, where I assume no limitations, and about 0.5gb on my wireless account if I use it a lot (full time for 10 days will do it). I plan on using about 3x more data on the new wireless connection than my old one, so 1.5gb should be about right.

All of the network operators in Canada basically offer the same plan. Due to the potential for going wildly over budget I recommend the "flexi" plan (it is roughly $5 more but automatically adjusts to the next level if you go over).

Again, all major operators have this on offer:

$35 starter rate (500mb or so)
$55-60 midrange (up to 2gb on most or 3gb on Bell)
$70ish high/fulltime (5gb)

Anything over that will cost you about $50/gig and in my case Telus is going to stop the card from functioning at the 10gb mark. Probably a good idea since that would mean an extra $250 on top of my monthly bill.

Which Card is Best?

Telus offers two cards, Bell one, and Rogers two.

The best one on Telus is the Sierra series, so sayeth the forums. Construction of the card is better?

The best one on Rogers is the MTE variety. It seems to get higher speeds.

The best one on Bell is... well who cares about Bell.

I ended up with the lower option of the two Sierra cards Telus had on offer, the Sierra 306. I chose this one for a few reasons:

  • It only required a 1 year contract
  • It supported the same network(s) as the higher end model
  • The difference between high speed and ultra high speed is irrelevant (it is just reason to use more data)
  • The pricing for the higher end model is dumber than dumb. The outright cost is $29 more than the lower one, but you pay $79 up front on contract vs. $0... why so much more? Dumb.
  • Currently the bulk of users on the Telus/Bell network are using the older network technology, so there should be no harm in choosing a mid-range card on the new network... the network has few users thus lots of bandwidth.
    • Final Thoughts / Observations

      The stick is much faster than I expected. It is amazing to use.

      As I had been warned by some friends who have used these things, the USB sticks get hot really fast. It is okay though. They are tested to run that hot.

      On a busy day my bandwidth usage is about 65-70mb. Primarily using SSH to connect to servers and a lot of page reloads while I'm developing.

Scary bank machine moment

It is often funny to see these embedded systems running Windows because we all inevitably know that they will crash like this. Had they been running any other type of system it probably just would have shut down or quietly froze. In this case we get a scary popup covering the "please take your cash" message.

Notes from Drupal Camp Victoria

I finally made it out to a real Drupal event!  Not just a local meetup... so much more than that.

The two-day educational networking event took place at North Studio - a Victoria web development firm which also does a lot of work in the computer training department.  Our schedule started with a focus on the basics: installation of Drupal, SEO techniques, a dash of Information Architecture and more.  That was all really valuable stuff, but for me it was a bit redundant.  If you've been following my threads for the past year you will probably understand what I mean.

What I Learned

The presentation on Actions, Triggers and Rules by Dave Tarc was insightful.  I have worked with Actions and Triggers on Drupal 6 and the Workflow-NG module for Drupal 5.  Rules takes over where Workflow-NG left off.  Essentially this module just lets you add some rudimentary logic to your Triggers so you can automate things on the site.  What could be better than automating things?  In my world: not much.

Learning about Panels3 was a valuable experience. I support sites using Panels3 but I haven't had the need to get much further than that.  The presenter showed us how to use the mini-panel component with the Tabs Panel Style module to produce a nice AJAX tabbed block, the kind that newspapers and magazines like to use to add contextual content to pages.  That has already worked it's way into one of my projects.

The Geo module with OpenLayers presentation blew my mind.  Want to map out things in three dimensional space?  Geo can get you there.  Want to use a map that behaves like Google's Map service but without the branding?  Geo can get you there too.  There are so many base maps to choose from it is really quite amazing at what can be done with Drupal, a custom MySQL configuration and a little know-how (PS, you may not need the MySQL customization if you rely on WKT - it does not allow you to do as much though).  This one will be my next pet project for sure.  Just too cool not to find a reason to do it

Giving Back

My take away from Drupal Camp was that people should give back to the community.  What that means in practice for me is that I should contribute documentation and code where I can. For a time I thought doing some occasional pro-bono (ie, free) work for people was another route to go... I have since moved on.  That often takes an immense amount of time and is not necessarily as valuable as supporting the Drupal community directly.

I have agreement with one of my clients to publish a module I recently upgraded from D5 to D6 and I am hoping to contribute themes in the near future.  Hopefully that will assist others with their projects.  Be sure to subscribe to my RSS feed if you want to keep up on my Drupal code and documentation efforts.  Thanks!


A New Desk in Gastown

Great news today.  I have an office!

Since November 2008 I have been working with Geist Magazine helping to build out new functionality on the website and relaunch the site after upgrading it from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6.  For nearly all of this work I have been coding from my home in East Van and/or nearby cafés.  I love cafés, a lot, but after awhile you just feel like you need your own space.  So here I am.

Geist occupies a shared office space with other arts groups at 341 Water Street.  There is at least one book publisher, a performing arts group and others.  My desk fits into the web corner, bounded by archives of the magazine and a window from which you can see the sun adorn the red brick of the building next door.

Summer Recreation - Dragonboating in False Creek

Just a quick note about the fun activities around Vancouver in the summer time.  This is the ideal place to spend your time on a beach if you are wanting to waste the summer away.  I'll be working for much of this summer.  Crazy busy right now.  I still make time to dragonboat.  Teams are a good way to stay focused and motivated when the beach is always trying to lure you away from your busy life.  That's me in the back.

Snow in Vancouver

Snow on Nanimo Street in Vancouver

It snowed in Vancouver this past weekend. First on Friday, followed by a melt, then a big dump of snow happened on Saturday night.

Contrary to the past few days Saturday was actually nice even though it was bitter cold.

We had fun watching drivers try to make it up the hill seen in this picture. Unfortunately for one man with a pricey car he just could not make it up no matter how hard he tried.

Getting Games in Vancouver

Though I am not much of a gamer myself, my partner seems to burn through a lot of Nintendo DS games so I have developed a sense for finding new releases in Vancouver. That tip for you is to pass up your stop at Future Shop and move on to EB Games if you really want it first.

This is not intended to be a rant about Future Shop. I'm only noting this because when asking about new releases "the" video game person at my local Future Shop store gave me a chuckle and noted that they "almost never" get things the day they are released. No further information, nothing seemingly on order.

Having worked in retail just a decade ago I know that in 2008 it is possible to get good logistics on tracking inventory. This comment spoke volumes to me about Future Shop's intention with games: "we don't care". My gaming experience changed when I later found myself shopping at EB Games for the first time. I asked for the title, they knew what I was looking for, and they said it would be there tomorrow.

I let it go for a day and came back only to get the last copy. So that employee had information and it was accurate. He said there were a few on order and here was one in my hands.

We have also been doing the occasional purchase of Nintendo DS games over eBay, but only when quantities around home are sparse. As we have previously covered on this blog, the package sits somewhere in Canada Customs for about a week in addition to the shipping time from the United States and within Canada.

Always expect delays at Canada Customs when ordering goods online

Recently I have refound my love of online shopping. It's true that one should shop locally based on principle, but some products are just difficult to find in Canada. Some printed t-shirts, for example, are sold here but marked up at unreasonable rates. Presumably this is because when you buy online you get direct from the seller as opposed to re-sale. Enough said.

Today when I reviewed my purchase of computer equipment from a company in California that focuses on tiny energy-efficent machines I found that the Canadian border was the holdup. My goods are sitting in customs. I learned this when I called Canada Post and they ran a lookup on the United States Postal Service tracking code I have. Nothing in the system... yet. The items are still in processing at a government facility.

It then dawned on me to check around online to see what my expectations should really be. It turns out my concerns were premature, things are still in processing and that's normal. The difference with this package seems to be that the parts are reasonably more expensive than the t-shirts I love to buy. Or perhaps the t-shirts travel by land? Whatever the case, such is life. When it does finally arrive, tax slip and review fee in tow, it will be great to use a tiny perfectly silent computer.

Fortunately I spent my vacation camping rather than configuring computers. The next few weeks make up some of the greatest weather Vancouver has to offer all year and as usual the city is busy with activity. When September eventually does roll around I'll be in good shape to configure these little boxes as the rain sets in for the season.