Communications on the cheap from Everest Base Camp, by Seth Wolpin

Posted: Jun 13, 2011 09:03 pm EDT

( You might recall him from the April 6 Everest BC tech roundup: iPhones, sat phones, 3G.

Climbers in Everest south side were setting up their technology: Seth Wolpin, bringing an iPhone along with Thuraya sat phone and a basic mobile with a NTC SIM card on the way, sent a very early tech report to HumanEdgeTech from BC.

Fast forward a couple of months. Seth Wolpin is a freshly baked Everest summiteer. While in BC, the research assistant professor at the University of Washington compiled a detailed technology report that could prove useful for the next batch of climbers.

Communications on the cheap from Everest Base Camp
By Seth Wolpin

Audience: Me so I can keep track of what I have learned. And anyone who is interested in mobile communication tools in Nepal.

Objective: This post covers some of the basic for having voice/ data access via a smart phone, data access with a USB broadband stick, and voice/data access with a satellite phone from Everest Base Camp (EBC). A lot of this should be applicaple to other parts of Nepal as well.

Caveats: Nothing works perfectly at EBC and, somewhat ironically, Ive had to write this without solid access to the web so there are some areas I have not been able to research well or to provide links to.

Smart Phone Prepaid Data

You can buy a simple phone capable of SMS and a SIM card for under $50 in KTM. Or just bring your own unlocked phone and get the SIM card and some scratch cards to load it with minutes. But you may want to do web surfing, facebook, email etc.

The solution is a a GSM smart phone with a pre-paid data plan funded through scratch cards, particularly if it is a NTC SIM card, I recommend a NCell SIM Card. Again, you can bring your own or buy in KTM. You may need a Nepalese friends help with the purchase of the NTC card and some waiting time.

I went with NCell because of their broadband USB data option for laptops (NCell Connect detailed later) and their purported coverage at Everest Base Camp where I am currently in residence for the ~2 months.

I am currently using a prepaid NCell SIM card in a jailbroken/unlocked iPhone. The cell tower is located about 1.5hrs walk away in Gorak Shep it is very small and solar powered and supposedly capable of only 50 concurrent users. Calls to the States are pretty decent and only 7.5r a minute.

Data on my phone has been hit or miss. Very slow facebook with status updates often timing out, outgoing emails often time-out as well. Ive noticed that many Nepalese at EBC have two SIM cards one NCell and one NTC. When one doesnt work, the other often does. I am in the process of getting a cheap mobile handset with a NTC SIM card as backup. Im looking for information about data services by other carriers but do not think NTC provides this.

Customer service
From Ncell mobile 9005 -
From other mobile 977 9809005000
Press 2 for English then press 9 customer service representative
their English service has been great. You get 30 free calls a month and then they charge you ~7r a call.

Adding credit
I filled my pre-paid NCell account with credit from a scratch (you basically buy a card like a lotto ticket, scratch off the back, and text the 13 digit number on the back of the scratch card. This is often done by:
a) dialing (not texting) *102* and entering the PIN followed by hash.
b) dial 90012 and follow voice prompts to enter the 13 digit PIN,
c) Text the pin to 900012.

As far as I know, there is know what to add credit to someone elses phone (or yours ) through a website or texting.

Checking Balance
Dial *901# or dial *101#

Adding features
Once you have credit on the phone, there are numbers you n text with short messages to activate data services (GmPRS) and voice mail etc. They will give you a booklet with the SIM card. The info on the website is very clear, what I present below may have some errors and will probably be outdated rather quickly. You may need to visit an office to have GmPRS activated!

Calling locally or internationally with Ncell prepaid?
Incoming, domestic or other calls are free

International, call the country code (001 for USA) then their area code and number. As of 4/2011, The rate is about 6r per minute, with tax, about 7.r which is close to 10 cents a minute. A climber from the UK told me if you prefix international country codes with 1445 you will get a lower rate. (unconfirmed). Regardless, it
is probably much less expensive than having a person in the States call you.

Email to SMS Gateway
This is a great way for friends abroad to send you a free (to them) text. By sending an email to your NCell number an email that becomes converted to a text that you receive. In my case, they email the following address (replace the first digits with your own NCell number: (I have purposely underlined my number, the 977 is the country code). Their email should be short and simply say who they are and what their number is and to call them. Naturally, remember to prefix your call to them with their country code. They could also text you but that would cost money! It appears emails like this that are longer than those normally allowed by text (144 characters?) are still received. I think there is a charge for receiving this text but it is very nominal.

What about texting from a Nepal number to a Nepal or a USA number?

I have no idea what your provider charges for outgoing texts from the states to international countries, I know Verizon is 50 cents per outgoing text, but I would recommend checking out sending texts via google voice. Or the Email to SMS gateway mentioned above which can allow the recipient in Nepal to reply via the text function in the google voice app for free or else simply text from the phone. This section is really about people in Nepal texting people in/out of the country. The rates below are rough guesses. Regardless of true costs, the rates are pretty low.
Nepal to Nepal, (NCell to NCell): 1r or maybe 1.99r
Outgoing texts: international 10r per message (or 2.33? or 5?).

Note: Remember the recipient in the USA may receive a charge for international incoming SMS and MMS messages, my friend uses Verizon and is charged 5 cents per incoming international text probably more for a MMS test (multi-media with pics etc). Another good reason for both parties to use google voice if possible.

Data Services on smart phone
And if you have activated the data (GPMRS) plan on your phone so you can send emails and surf the web etc, it is .006r per k. (6r per mb, closer to 7 with taxes) A simple email with no fancy attachments can easily be only 20k. There are are a 1000k in a mb. Please see my comment above about very flaky data service on my phone.

Calling or Texting Me
My Ncell number is: 9813600297,
The country code is 0097 or 977 (both work) so calling me from outside may entail 977-9813600297. As for your outgoing costs, I dont know what your phone service provider charges for a call like this your need to ask them. But google voice and Skype out can be below 20 cents per minute though the quality needs to be tested. More information would be appreciated. While in the states, I called a friend in Nepal using google voice. I was on a landline and he was on a cell phone. The quality was terrible.

SMS to Email
I have little interest in this, why not just text or email? Except that I often have outgoing email SMTP failures and it costs my friend in the States 5 cents to receive a text from me. So this would get around both problems but with the slower notification approach of email.

It looks like for SMS to email there is no activation charge but a monthly charge of 30r, with one SMS to email being 1r

Voice Mail
Voice activation is 88.50R and listening to them is 1.99r. Im not sure how you listen to them.


Email will usually be sent out with the SMPT server that is linked to your primary account. These servers (as in my university) may reject your outgoing email if the country of origin looks suspicious or for other reasons. Some people subscribe to a commercial smtp service like (no personal history with this company) More information would be welcome. My primary account is gmail. If the connection is bad, things will get timed out and the emails will collect in my outbox along with SMTP errors. port 465 ssl/tls
normal password
username is full gmail address

tried 25
tried 25

Other Email Notes
Consider researching low bandwidth email setups for your email client. I am using Thunderbird and POP settings instead of IMAP. There are pros-cons to both I think. I also have some accounts setup as IMAP will just msg headers and am trying to figure out what works better for me.

Laptop Broadband Connect
You are not limited to getting adding data features to your smart phone. You can use Ncells Connect service. This is a data only SIM card that is in in a USB stick. It is not 3g service, but the slower EDGE network. The rates per mb are much lower than pre-paid cellular data. The software installs directly off the USB stick and is simple to use. Technically you can put this SIM card into your smart phone and receive the lower/faster data rates but you would not be able to receive voice calls. In Gorak Shep it would work great but randomly disconnect about every 30 min so save frequently.

Laptop Data in April, 2011.
5000MB is 4518.87 = 1.1R per Mb. (note that cellular date connection is almost 7r per mb)
1000mb is 1015.87r
500 is 663.87R

Good for 30 days but must recharge with something at least 100r to keep balance.
To know remaining package 9009
To check balance sms blank msg to 90011 (send button not activated)
To recharge, send pin to 90012

I purchased the 5000mb package while in KTM, only to find that it really doesnt work at EBC. I now have a huge balance that is about to expire. My calls to NCell customer service have mostly found a representative promising a call back from an administrator this has never been fulfilled. (Update: 5/2/2010. It works really well most days in Gorak Shep and by recharging with only a 100r scratch card, I was able to keep the balance. It is so much less expensive than paying 20r per minute in an internet café).

Satellite Phones

For on the cheap the Thuraya line is the most obvious answer. The company is based in the UAE and only has a few satellites they do not provide true global coverage but do provide coverage in Nepal. Their per-minute rate is lower than the more popular Iridium Network. After laying out ~$1000 on this device with accessories, and knowing that it does not work in many other countries, I might have another look at rates if I could go back in time.

They have two options the ECO SIM card which can run under $1 per minute depending on who you buy your refill credits from, and the PRE SIM card which is a bit more expensive. The PRE SIM card is important if you are climbing Everest or venturing into China as the ECO does not work in China. When you are near Camp III or IV, or on the summit, the phone may report itself as being in China those the importance of having the PRE SIM card installed. For my summit push, I used only the PRE card from the beginning to avoid confusion. I have had two relatively long conversations with very experienced guides on Everest and both highly recommended Thuraya.

After a lot of research, I elected to buy a new Thuraya 2510 with a bunch of accessories from Human Edge Tech (HET: which is a subsidiary of Explorers Web. I liked their history and experience with Everest Climbs and some references to Toms character in various books about Everest. Ive also elected to do all of my refills through the company even if at a slight premium. Tom has been extremely helpful.

Data Connections

My Thuraya 2510 is capable of GmPRS which basically means that it can serve as a modem- providing an always on data connection where I am charged by the kilobyte instead of the time. Each SIM card needs to be activated, or provisioned for GmPRS once you are in Nepal and this can cause some headaches. You can also use the phone for data in non-GmPRS mode but it is much slower (9.6kps) and you are paying by the minute.

The phone needs to be connected to the laptop with a USB cable and drivers need to be installed on the laptop. HET provides some directions for doing this as does Thuraya but it can be a little tricky to get going. Nothing beyond Windows XP is supported and apparently you cant install the drivers in Windows 7 with XP compatibility mode. Ive not tried to install things with a virtual server or anything like that though it is a possibility. Since Thuraya does not provide coverage in the US most of the setup and testing needs to be done in Nepal.

Customer Support

Ive had pretty decent interactions with their customer support line. I have, however, been caught in a one week circle of Thuraya saying that my ECO card has not been provisioned for GmPRS that I cannot do this and that only HET can. HET has said they have received confirmations twice of provisioning.this was eventually resolved and worked fine for sending/receiving smaller emails.
Dial 100 from phone note that it will cost you something like $0.42 per minute
Dial 0088216100100 from a different phone (this includes country code, I did this from an NCell phone, I dont know what the rate was, but it was not inexpensive!)
Send Blank SMS151 to check balance (you get 3 of these free per day, afterwards it is $0.42 per call I think) You may also be able to dial this number to find out what your number is and some other services.
Dial (SMS) 150 for refills? I have not tried this since I am going through HET.

Through HET, I have paid $172 for 160 credits/units/dollars/minutes of use on the ECO card. Roughly $1.07 per credit/unit/dollars/minutes. Each minute uses up one of these. And 1mb of date (upload/download included) uses up 5 units I believe. Expensive. Emails with attachments often result in time-out errors even though a lot of data upload/download is used prior to the error. Web surfing has never worked for me. Better off using the data connection just in a pinch to upload/download critical emails w/o attachments and walk to Gortak Shep and use NCell Connect stick for the rest.

I recommend the car charger and extra life battery as accessories, also the data connect cable. I used a pelican case.

#Mountaineering #Tech #topstory

Seth in "The best chair in the world near Gorak Shep, Nuptse back drop."
Image by Seth Wolpin courtesy Seth Wolpin
Mobile cell tower in Gorak Shep, powered by solar.
Image by Mark Sedon courtesy Mark Sedon, SOURCE