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Prepaid Data Packages and the iPhone

I recently had the chance to sit down with my iPhone and a prepaid SIM with a $50 account balance. I really got a chance to see how the iPhone would function with a pay-as-you-go plan and its data plan.

What I learned was this: although using iPhone with pay-as-you-go means you can make occasional phone calls when you need to, you'll want to avoid EDGE data and stick to WiFi whenever possible. Here's the complete run-down.

Activating the iPhone

Getting the iPhone to activate with the new SIM took longer than I expected because I was using an updated version of iASign and I forgot one basic rule: You need to deactivate your phone first before trying to reactivate it with another card. This cost me almost a half hour of frustration until I finally remembered.

A paperclip let me remove the old SIM and swap in a new one from a cheap disposable Motorola phone. Then I used iASign to deactivate the iPhone(./iASign.mac --deactivate), to check the state of the iPhone (./iASign.mac --state, which should return deactivated), and then to activate (./iASign.mac --automatic iPhoneActivation_private.pem). You may wish to use its backup feature before doing the deactivate/reactivate.

MediaNet

Once reactivated, I called 611 to connect to GoPhone customer support. To talk to a person, you need to say "Customer Service Agent" a few times. The automated daemon will eventually catch on and connect you to a person.

The agent told me about the available feature packages: namely the 1 MB ($4.99) and 5 MB ($9.99) MediaNet data plans. Data plans last for 30 days and will roll over from month to month if you renew them before the end of the 30 days--up to a limit of 15 MB. AT&T also offers a messaging plan which will save you some money when pay-as-you-go SMS message rates go up from $0.05/message to $0.15/message next month.

She connected me back to the daemon and I went ahead and purchased my plan. If you want to try this yourself, here's what you have to do.

Say "Buy Features". After recognizing this phrase, the daemon prompted me with "GoPhone Mall" and asked "What Store?"

Say "Media Net". She confirmed what I said.

Say "5 MB". Another confirmation.

Say "Buy It". It then took about a minute to process the request.

After finishing my purchase, I hung up and checked the Kilobyte balance on my iPhone: HomeScreen > Phone > Keypad, enter *777*3#. This showed I had 5120 KB remaining. An AT&T Megabyte equals 1024 of their Kilobytes. No surprises there.

Spending my Megabytes

Once loaded with ten dollars/5 MB, I set about to spend those megabytes. I checked my remaining KB before and after each test. You'll be surprised by one of the costs--but more about that after this list.

Loaded Google Home Page. $0.01 Google's home page loaded without any problem and used a minimal amount of data transfer. Compare the two cent price to my original tests a couple of months ago without a data package. Then the page cost $0.11 using the pay-as-you-go standard $0.01/kb rates. Not bad.

Watched one YouTube Video. $4.76 I opened the YouTube application, searched for a video, selected it and watched it. The playback paused twice due to data transfer glitches at minute 2:39 and 3:45 of a 4-minute video. It took several seconds before the playback resumed. Edge is not the best choice for YouTube, even if you're on unlimited data.

Google Maps. $1.42 I searched for Ethiopian restaurants in my neighborhood, selected two and looked at their information pages. I viewed only normal map data (no satellite imagery) although I did zoom in and out for clearer views.

Stock Data. $0.20 I entered a new stock ticker symbol and checked the 1 year historic data for it. Google SMS would have been cheaper.

Weather. $0.10 I have 13 cities listed in my weather application. I checked them all.

Photo email. $0.10 I selected a photo from an iPhone album, addressed it and emailed it using the standard iPhone photo send feature. As usual, the photo was reduced in sized before getting sent.

Full resolution photo-by-mail. $0.80 I used my SendPics utility to send a full-resolution 2-Megapixel JPG photo. Although JPEG compresses the photo quite a bit, this file used more data than the standard email size and the cost reflects that.

Browsing Flickr. $24.07 I pointed Safari to Flickr and navigated as such: Flickr > Explore > Feburary 2007 > February 2nd > Picture of Dog.

Why Flickr cost 24 dollars and change

So why did my (rather limited if you think about it) Flickr session cost so much? What happened was this: After the first $2.60 of data, I ran out of money on my $10 feature plan. My per megabyte rate jumped back from $2/MB to $10/MB. 2+ MB later, I had spent over twenty dollars to view a picture of a dog.

Wow.

There was no warning, no cutoff. I didn't receive a you-have-exhausted-your-data message until several minutes later. And my remaining balance was already reduced by $21.37.

Lessons

So, what does this whole exercise show? It reinforces what you already know: the iPhone doesn't play well with limited data plans. It also suggests that you'll want to always make sure your iPhone is on WiFi before you surf if you're using your iPhone with pay-as-you-go. Use a utility like my UIctl to disable the iPhone's communications center and ensure that any data transfer happens through WiFi.

Consider using Google's SMS search options as an alternative to surfing and Google Maps. Despite the upcoming rate hikes, an SMS search may save you money over surfing with Safari. You can also buy SMS feature plans ($5/200, $10/1000, $20/unlimited) that last for 30 days at a time and offer rollover options.

Add extra data packages. You can add up to 3 packages at a time to your pay-as-you-go plan. If you think you may need 5 MB, consider adding 10 MB--just in case. Although the data rolls over from month to month, you top out at 15 MB. So you may end up spending $5/month just to keep your 15 MB alive for occasional use but that's better than a $24 visit to Flickr.

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