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Internet access when touring France

SFR;s mobile internet keyFrance always seems to be a little schizophrenic about new technology – rather backward and bureaucratic in some areas, yet at the cutting edge in others. France invented and rolled out Minitel nationally many years ago which was a pre-cursor to the web and an impressive technology, but sadly overtaken by the personal computer and Internet Explorer. Yet many more rural establishments in France do not accept credit/debit cards – especially if they are not French. Then there is the TGV high speed train network which is the envy of many other countries.

As for internet access the picture is patchy and a little unpredictable. Naturally the major cities are well provided with internet cafes and high speed residential connections. But even in the most isolated areas some high speed internet speeds are available, often supported by local authorities, seeing the web as a valuable asset in supporting the local economy and stemming population drift to the major conurbations.

For the traveller in France the picture is improving rapidly – internet cafes can be found in many towns and villages – the cafe owners recognising that this will give them an extra edge in attracting customers,
Most of the major hotel chains such as upmarket Mercure and Novotel and even budget hotels such as Ibis, Etap and Forumule One will offer Wi-Fi (pronounced “wiffee”). Of course, your needs will depend on whether you carry a portable PC or other device with you – but even then many hotels, including small independents, will offer a free terminal in reception with access to the internet.
Now campsites are following suit, such that the Michelin Guide to Camping in France now includes symbols for internet access. We recently visited an idyllic campsite on the Brittany coast where you could have a delightful view over the coastline, whilst tapping away on your computer catching up on your emails – all included in the campsite fee. But although its good to be able to do so, with scenery like that the keyboard and screen seem an unwelcome diversion.
There are other offerings from the main French mobile phone networks – including a wireless 3G USB key (cle internet 3G) similar to that available in the UK from networks such as Vodafone. Depending on your needs and budget you can purchase a pay-as-you-go Internet USB device with no contract – e.g. SFR offer one for €99 and for each day you want to use it the cost is €10 per day for 24-hour access; Orange and the other networks offer similar options – you may need a French bank account and/or a French address to sign up to some of the plans. However, roaming fees on the main UK mobile phone networks can be very expensive for data – check with the operator before you leave.

UPDATE The Geant Casino Hypermarket in Brest (29 Finistere, Brittany) offers free wi-fi throughout the shopping mall.

The French networks also offer a wide coverage on WiFi Hotspots – for many of which you can purchase airtime online or by subscribing to a network before arriving in France such as Freedom4Wifi

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