The Sometimes Phone, Part I
Thursday, September 19, 2013
[Okay I know this is a ridiculously long story but if you wait for me to figure out which parts are actually relevant and edit it appropriately I'll never get it up. I just need to write and post. I'll put up a summary when it's all written with key points. People who want to know about this but have limited patience for rambling writing can just wait for that.]
I had a conversation the other night with someone I know who doesn’t own a car but sometimes needs one when she travels, and she talked about how complicated that is, that the whole system is designed for people who have cars all the time, and if you don’t, you have to get crazy expensive insurance and it feels like highway robbery. (And for any of you who find yourself in this position, she said that the solution she finally came up with is to use Hotwire, they offer relatively cheap insurance with their cars. Now you know.)
I said this is the same problem I have with cell phones, the system is set up for people to have a phone all the time, every day, not to have a phone when they go out of town, which is the only time I want or need a cell phone.
And that conversation inspired me to finally write this post. Because I think I have (more or less) solved the phone problem — at long last, I finally have a Sometimes Phone.
When you say you don’t have a phone but need one sometimes, people say, “Just get a pay-as-you-go phone.” This is always suggested by someone who knows absolutely nothing about pay-as-you-go phones.
It would be nice if you could get a pay-as-you-go phone and then pay when you wanted to use it and not pay when you didn’t need it then when you needed it again put more money on it. However this is not how pay-as-you-go phones work.
When you get a pay-as-you-go phone, you create an account with a carrier and they give you a phone number and you put money on the phone on a regular basis to keep it active. How often you have to put money on the phone depends on how much money you put on in the first place, and the carrier, and all kinds of other variables that I am not remembering right now because I have blocked this whole thing from my memory, because it is such a pain in the ass.
Every carrier is different and trying to compare plans is extremely difficult. I am like a total superstar at stuff like this and even I am unable to properly run numbers and come up with a rational conclusion.
So I will just say that generally what I found is that in order to get a low per-minute rate, you need to buy quite a lot of minutes each month, at which point you might as well just get a monthly plan because you’re spending the same amount.
For a long time (spring 2003 to fall 2012) I had a Virgin Mobile plan that did what I needed and was pretty cost-effective. I had to put on $20 every 90 days ($15 every 90 days if I linked it to my credit card and had it top up automatically) and the rate was twenty-five cents a minute for the first ten minutes a day I used the phone, and ten cents a minute after that. So how many minutes my $15 or $20 got me depended on how I used the phone. Days that I talked more got me more minutes than days that I talked less.
Some carriers charge a lower per-minute rate but have a flat fees for using the phone — like I think AT&T or T-Mobile charges a dollar for every day you use the phone.
Really the only way to compare is to have a sense of how you are likely to use the phone, then run the numbers for the various options through that scenario and see which one works for you. (But like I said, it’s hard. You definitely need a spreadsheet.)
Because I didn’t need to use the phone very much, I didn’t particularly care about the per-minute rate, I just wanted to have a low minimum. Which is why I liked the Virgin Mobile plan.
But when my phone mysteriously disappeared in September 2012, I looked at it as an opportunity to stop paying $15 every 90 days for something I barely used.
Eighty per cent of my life, I am within arm’s reach of a phone. The other twenty per cent I am taking a break and do not want to talk on the phone. If you want to talk to me, you can leave a message and I will call you back when I am again within arm’s reach of the phone.
The exception to this is when I travel.
Traveling without a phone is often complicated, because everyone expects you to have a phone, so they set things up assuming you have a phone. Okay, call me when you get to town.
It is not actually all that complicated to arrange things so that a phone is not required, but in order to do that, you have to tell people you do not have a phone. And saying you do not have a phone makes you sound like some kind of nut job. What do you mean you don’t have a phone.
So I would like a phone when I travel, so I don’t have to make people go back in time and remember what it’s like to make plans without cell phone, or explain to people I don’t see very often why I don’t have a phone. I’m trying to fly under the radar here.
But I do not want to pay for a phone every month of my life just so I have it the few times a year when I am not at home.
At a nonprofit tech group I participate in, I learned about Google Voice, and that you could get a number that you could send texts from. This was a hugely useful piece of information, it meant that I could use my computer in place of a cell phone. Since I am nearly always in close proximity to my computer, this solved nearly all of my communication problems.
Except if I actually needed to talk to someone on the phone when I am not in a house or office with a phone, or with my computer in a place with wi-fi.
I had a trip in June that I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull off. I was on the trip and was discussing it a lunch with a friend whose family lives everywhere (mother in France, sister in London, father in Switzerland, in-laws in Mexico), and he said something that I thought was the usual pay-as-you-go suggestion.
I said, “Right, but you have to pay all the time to keep it active, what am I going to do, get a new phone every time I take a trip?”
He said, “No, not a new phone, just a SIM card. You need a GSM phone. An unlocked phone that you just put a SIM card into.”
After we were done with lunch and I was back to my computer, I looked into it a little bit and discovered ReadySIM, which was designed for Canadians who are visiting the U.S. and want a short-term phone plan to avoid the crazy roaming charges the would get otherwise. You get a SIM card with an unlimited phone plan that is good for 3, 7, 14, or 30 days. The three-day card is $15, the thirty-day card is $40.
I almost made it through the trip in June without a hitch.
I ran into traffic driving from Connecticut to Philadelphia and couldn’t call my friend and tell her where I was. I hadn’t told her I didn’t have a phone (had texted her from Google Voice) so she was calling and texting wondering what was going on. Other than that, I pulled it off (though I cheated a bit and borrowed a friend’s iPad, which made surreptitious GV texting easier).
But then close on the heels of that trip, I had a second trip set up for July which was going to be much more complicated. I decided I needed to try to figure out the phone.
I looked online for “unlocked GSM phone.” A whole bunch of places came up, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart. I’m like oh, great, this is going to be totally easy. Everyone has them. Prices ranged from $20 to $800, there were a million options.
Because it seems like this is going to work, no problem, I order a 14-day ReadySim SIM card. I get the full service one (talk-text-data), I’m totally ready, just need the phone.
But I’m totally busy recovering from the first trip. I do manage to stop at a nearby Radio Shack, but they don’t carry any unlocked phones. I’m busy. I take no further action. I have a meeting on Friday that is in the direction of all the Big Box retailers. I’m like this is fine, I’ll just deal with it on Friday.
So on Friday, I go to the Best Buy Mobile store, which is a Best Buy store that just carries phones and phone service, no tvs or refrigerators or anything like that, I’m thinking this is just what I need, and I walk in and as about unlocked GSM phones and the sales person says, “No we don’t carry any unlocked phones.” I say, but your website says you sell them. She says, “Right, we only sell those online.”
It is now Friday at 4pm. I am leaving on my trip Tuesday morning, my flight leaves at 9:30am. Ordering online, not a good option. And I was so confident that I could get the phone at Best Buy that I took the bus. Which means I can’t even stop at the other stores to see what they have.
I take the bus home and go online and start looking around and calling to see if anyone local carries unlocked GSM phones. I become obsessed with this. All the while kicking myself for being a procrastinating moron.
I call four or five places, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones, they say no. (Later I realize I should have just asked for unlocked phones, which I’m pretty sure are all GSM phones. I think people who didn’t know what a GSM phone was just said no because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even if they carried unlocked phones.)
I finally call this cell phone store off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones. They say, “Yup, we do. ” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, sure. Uh huh.”
I find out exactly where they are located and tell them I’ll be in on Saturday.
After my work shift on Saturday, I drive through a thunderstorm to Raleigh and find the store, which happens to be in the same shopping center as TigerDirect, which I had called on Friday, and they told me they carry unlocked GSM phones, but didn’t have any in stock, they should be getting some in next week. Not so helpful when I was leaving on Tuesday morning.
I walk into the little cell phone store, I ask about unlocked phones, the guy is like “Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. We had one but we sold it.”
Gaahhh, round two.
A discussion ensues among the four people working in the store whether or not they have anything that would work for me and what it might be. They say they have a Windows phone that has never been used or put on a network, that might work. It’s over $250. Way more than I want to spend on something that may or may not work the way I want to. Plus Windows. No. They have one other possible option that is also out of my price range, $350 or something like that.
No go. I leave the store.
I decide to stop at TigerDirect, since it’s right there.
They have a little phone display with a bunch of different options and I look and notice that they do in fact have several phones in stock under the display shelf.
I talk to a sales person and tell him what I’m looking for and we look at the what they have and there are basically two that will work, a small Samsung and a Motorola Droid Pro.
I will say right now that I know people love their iPhones and iPads but I cannot tell you how much I hate those effing keyboards on those things. I hate having to switch between letters and numbers and clearly this is a deeply flawed system that everyone has to make a note about typos as part of their signature. Hello. Not good.
The Samsung was tiny and had a touch-screen keyboard. The Droid Pro had a fairly large screen and a physical keyboard. They were both the same price ($139). I bought the Droid Pro.
Stay tuned for Part II about how I actually set up the phone and got it to work (with pictures! I promise!)