What’s the Best Cell Phone Plan for Travelling in the U.S.

I travel to the USA several times a year – to go camping, sightseeing, and of course shopping! Many of us do. And when we go we take our mobile phones with us. But even though using your Canadian mobile phone in the USA is as easy as it is when you’re on home soil; the price of doing so can be quite shocking!

So as I plan my next trip the USA it was quite a nice coincidence that Mobile Syrup published an article about a new promotion from Roam Mobility. This got me thinking about some of the alternatives we have to the obvious choices and what I should do on my next trip south.

The Obvious Choices

We have three obvious choices: do nothing; turn-off the phone; and buy a travel bundle.

Do Nothing
By doing nothing you’re basically calculating that you won’t need your phone much and if you use it you’re just going to pay what it cost and that’s it. Hopefully you’re right. Or maybe you’re one of those idiots who streams YouTube to get to sleep at night and didn’t realise the phone companies were going to make you pay for the service you used.
Turn Off the Phone
Ah yes, the glory days, when only truckers, cops, and taxis had radios. The rest of us planned our days ahead of time, organized rendez-vous points, and inflicted the last to arrive with a stern “Where the hell were you!? We’ve been waiting like for-e-v-e-r for you!” As warm and fuzzy as nostalgia is in our minds the reality is we’re not going back there.
Travel Bundle
This one’s a toughy! Is the travel bundle worth it? Are you going to use that many minutes or messages? Would it be cheaper to Do Nothing? What if you go over? This is essentially what I did a few a years ago and then decided the next year I would do nothing – which worked out well the first year but came out even the year after.

These are the choices the Canadian telcos have presented us with.

The Alternatives

Enter the alternatives! In the USA there are many more mobile phone providers than we have here, most are MVNO’s (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) who run on one of the Big Networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.). Provided you’re only there for a short period (a few days to a couple weeks) you can get some pretty amazing deals!

There are also some Canadian and international MVNO’s that sell service to travelers to the USA. In fact, what got me going was the Canadian company Roam Mobility and their SIM Swap promotion.

Essentially what you’re going to be doing in this case is getting a new, US-based, mobile phone service. Whether you bring your own device and simply insert their SIM card in-place of the one you have now or buy a device from them too you are getting a new phone service, and this has some considerations:

  • Using your existing device requires it to be unlocked. This can cost anywhere from $5 to upwards of $50 depending on the device and whether you go through your carrier or a third-party.
  • If you use your existing device and swap SIM cards then your existing line (voice and messages) go into limbo. Your calls will go to voice mail (assuming you have) and your SMS messages will pile-up in your inbox. Of course voice mails you can check from another line but text messages you generally can’t.
  • You will have to let people know what your new US number is if you expect them to call you.
    • Your friends will have to pay long-distance charges to reach you; or
    • You could forward your Canadian number to your US number but you’ll probably pay extra for the forwarding service (by the minute or for the month) and the long-distance charge.

Consider too if you’ll only be making calls to US numbers, or if you’ll be calling home egularly too. And how often you’ll be using the plan since some have relatively short (i.e.: 30 days) expiry limits.

NOT For Your Consideration

There are a lot of alternatives really, depending on your requirements and objectives. I’ve mentioned Fongo here, and will again later, because they offer number portability, true phone service with SMS, and their basic service is FREE. But there’s no reason to ignore popular messaging services like Google Talk/Hangouts, LINE, Viber or even BBM if those suit your needs. There’s also providers from comWave to Vonage to Voip.ms to consider. And nothing wrong with the grand-daddy of them all: Skype! All of these could be factored into the mix here, but that’s another article!

Some Comparisons

There are far too many choices in the USA to compare them all here, and finding them isn’t always easy either. Pay-as-you-go and Pay-per-day plans are getting rarer and rarer it seems. Some aren’t even officially listed anymore!

AT&T GoPhone
This is their prepaid service and they have a variety of smartphone and basic plans, but the one I’ll focus on are the $2/day unlimited minutes & messages that is only charged when you use it.
T-Mobile Pay by the Day
They have two flavours of pre-paid service: for $3 a day (on the days you use it) you get unlimited minutes and messages and unlimited data with first 200MB on 4G (and the rest on 2G); for $2 a day you get the same all-you-can-eat buffet but you’re stuck on 2G the whole time.
Roam Mobility
A Canadian company reselling T-Mobile with a twist: $4/day gets you unlimited talk & text in the US and to Canada and 100MB on 4G; while for $3/day you loose the data but keep the unlimited talk & texting.

The biggest difference between these three plans is that AT&T and T-Mobile expire after 30-days whereas Roam Mobility keeps your account active for a whole year. Another difference is that AT&T seems to require the purchase of a GoPhone whereas T-Mobile and Roam offer SIM cards (allowing you to bring your current device).

Buy the Numbers

So here’s some cold hard numbers to compare, taking into account the considerations I mentioned earlier. To start with let’s see The Obvious Choices.

Do Nothing
According to Bell’s web site you’ll pay $1.45 minute and 75c per text message, data will clock in at $6 per megabyte. If you’re calling some one you’re travelling with then they’re probably paying as well.
Travel Bundle
Again with Bell, For the $50 Travel Bundle you’ll get 50 minutes, 50 MB, and 200 text messages. Beyond that you’ll pay 50c a minute, $1 per megabyte, and 25c a message.

Before pricing The Alternatives there’s a few things to consider. Some are one time costs but you still need to pay them so they’re worth considering.

  • Unlocking: Approximately $40 so you can use another network’s SIM card in your phone.
  • SIM card: For $10 to $20 you get a US SIM card with a US network.

If you’re going to forward your Canadian number to your new US number so friends can keep calling you there’s a couple more costs to consider too.

  • Call Forwarding: For $5 a month (with Bell) you can forward your Canadian number to your new US number.
  • US Long Distance: For $35 a month all that forwarding to a US number is covered.

On top of that you have the daily rates as detailed in previous section. So for example, if you take the Roam Mobility $4/day plan for seven days that’s $28. Add that to all the other charges here and it’s $128 the first time you use their service!!! Admittedly that drops to $68 the next time you use it. And you can easily chop $40 off the top if you avoid forwarding your number to drop down to the promised $28.

Here’s a table comparing some of the choices.

More Complicated Scenarios

To alleviate the issue of having to leave your Canadian number at home and missing out on all those calls and text messages from home here’s a couple ideas.

Fongo
Fongo, previously Dell Voice, is a Canadian VoIP service with apps for Android, iPhone and a home phone service. If you get one of the aforementioned plans with sufficient data (100MB = 200 minutes) you could forward your Canadian number to your Canadian Fongo number and use their app on your phone to receive and make calls home. They charge $3/month for outgoing Canadian & US text messages though, and you’d have to find a way to forward your text messages to your Fongo number.
Dual-SIM
You could get a Dual-SIM phone so you could still receive calls and text messages on your Canadian number, but instead of answering you would call back using your US number (assuming the plan you choose includes free or low-cost calls back to Canada).

There are other alternatives to Fongo, like ePhone from comWave.

An Extreme Solution

If you really want to set yourself up to roam then one solution would be to simply get a data-only (or tablet) plan and use a VoIP service (like Fongo, or Google Voice if they ever come to Canada – c’mon Google!!!) for calls and messages. When you travel to the States pick-up something like the T-Mobile $3-a-day plan and keep using your VoIP service to make & receive calls to Canada. This way there’s no difference for your friends back home who can always reach you at the same number and convoluted forwarding to avoid missing calls. Bell, Rogers, and Telus all offer flexible data plans so the month you’re travelling (and paying for a US service) you would probably be billed less for your Canadian service. Just be wary of the 30-day expiry on many US offerings.

Cross-posted on 2FatDads

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CRTC announces Proceeding to establish a mandatory code for mobile wireless services

The CRTC has just announced a Proceeding to establish a mandatory code for mobile wireless services. In theory this is a great move. In reality this is lip-service to a disillusioned and misguided public.

The reality is that his will not lead to any meaningful change in Canada’s wireless landscape, because:

  1. The telcos will voluntarily implement some of the codes prior to the establishment of the official code;
  2. There are provincial consumer protection laws that already require some of the things the public is demanding; and
  3. Most consumers (or at least the ones who post comments and in forums) are dumber than a sack of cabbages and just don’t understand how our nearly-but-not-really free-market works.

If you haven’t already done so you should post your comment on the CRTC web site (since they can’t really admit they read this blog).

Here’s what I had to say to the CRTC on this issue…

Code of conduct should include:
– decreasing cancellation fee proportional to remaining contract
– reasonable cost to unlock mobile phone once subsidy is paid off
– ability to remove unwanted software (apps) from the phone upon demand (not all smartphones have the capacity to handle the software installed by the carrier; but carriers do not test every model of every phone in every possible situation)
– individual service feature add-ons should be available at reasonable cost relative to feature bundles that include the individual features (i.e.: the sum of the individual prices should be more than the bundle price unless there is an obvious efficiency in having the two features simultaneously)

Let’s take a look at each one of those.

Cancellation fees

Many provinces, soon to be all I’m sure, already have clauses in their consumer protection laws that correlate your cancellation fee with the number of months you have left on your contract. It’s a moot point if the CRTC requires this since it’s already available to the majority of consumers but it would be nice to have a national standard.

Perhaps a more controversial addendum to this would be requiring the service providers to indicate what amount of your bill represents the subsidy and how much you can expect to save once your subsidy is paid off. Even going so far as allowing early pay-off so you can trigger the monthly savings ahead of time.

Unlocking

Unlocking is a more reasonable alternative to carrier’s feeble trade-in programs. Allowing consumers to sell or gift their phones and trade-up. You would have to pay off your subsidy first, but I think that’s totally reasonable.

Of course someone who expects to travel with their phone would simply have to purchase the phone outright and have it unlocked immediately upon purchase. If you know you’ll need an unlocked phone then pony-up the dough and buy one! Just because you decide to travel doesn’t mean the telcos have to give you special treatment.

Unwanted software

Okay, this might be a pet-peeve, but two things are certain: carrier software is often crap-tastic; and just because it isn’t branded spy warez r uz doesn’t mean it ain’t!

Most of the apps carriers put on your phone are simply white-label apps that have been re-branded and pointed to your carrier’s servers or data-sources. Not much design or development goes into these apps; hardly any testing; and definitely no support. So if you don’t use something you should be able to get it off your phone – especially if it’s something that feels it has to run in the background (and worse if it feels it has to always remind of this wonderful opportunity you’re missing out on).

We learned a lot from the Carrier IQ scandal a while back and so did the carriers: they now hide that functionality in apps that you actually want and seem genuinely useful. If you don’t want this stuff running in the background you should be able to remove it from your phone.

NOTE: I’m not a conspiracy-theory nut-job, but it’s fun to play one sometimes.

The other thing is, and this goes for OEM’s apps too, is that not every apps is tested in every possible way, and sometimes an app or OS upgrade is too much for a phone to handle, particularly an older phone. So once again, if you don’t use it you should be able to get the CPU/memory/bandwidth hogging app off your phone.

Individual Service Features

Okay, now this really is a pet peeve. Why is a bundle of un-related features cheaper than sum of the individual features? Remember, they’re un-related. Caller ID and Voice Mail and text messaging have nothing to do with each other. So why is it cheaper for me to get a bundle with all three than to just add Caller ID to my plan!?

I can understand why carriers would offer bundles of bandwidth and internet based services (like Mobile TV or sports broadcasts). But I don’t understand why they have to bundle everything!? It’s like every new junior marketing hire has to come up with a new bundle during his probation period if he wants to keep this job?!

Competition

And finally for all you twits whining about lack of competition in comments and forums. Competition does not mean the government will order Robelus to give you an iPhone 5 and unlimited internet. Competition means they try and sucker you for all the money they can while you try and sucker them for all the product and services you can – when you meet in the middle that’s the result of competition.

The new entrants, such as Wind, Public, and Videotron, will bring more choices to a certain segment of consumers. But they are not a choice for everyone – either because of their limited AWS handsets, their limited coverage, or their inability to bundle other services such as residential phone, internet, or television.

Increasing foreign investment is not going to make things any cheaper either. If someone invests millions or even billions of dollars it is because they want as much of the incredibly high margins Canadian telcos are making – not because they feel sorry for you and want to hand-out iPhones and unlimited internet like the Easter Bunny!

Don’t forget to post your comment on the CRTC web site and leave a little note saying “hello” here (I know you’re lurking there Chaiman Katz, c’mon – say hi!).

Cross-posted on 2FatDads

Competition best for wireless industry? Maybe not

So apparently the finally tally is we need competition, but not too much. Unfortunately Canada doesn’t have enough, we’re at least one national player too short. Not all our providers are studied in this report, and it pre-dates our new entrants arrival on the scene. But it does make a very good case for the need to add some competition to our telecommunications landscape.

It makes a lot of sense too. Lots of little players aren’t going to to have the resources to execute a national strategy – neither to build-out and operate a network across all geographical markets, nor to deal with the regulatory and market issues across our country, nor negotiate with suppliers to offer a wide selection of reasonably priced devices.

And of course a couple behemoth’s dividing the market and capturing enough money to satisfy their shareholders aren’t going to go out on any limbs for their customers; or make any particularly risky business moves either. Just coast their way from annual report to annual report.

So who’s our fourth national carrier going to be? Can Wind Mobile’s Anthony Lacavera bring Moblicity and Public together under one name (without Public he won’t have any spectrum in Quebec). Or perhaps Videotron can leverage their resources and pick-up spectrum outside of Quebec and become our newest national carrier?

Source: Effect of Regulatory Reform on the Efficiency of Mobile Telcommunications (PDF)

Via: The Globe and Mail

Cross-posted on 2FatDads