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TUAW Hands On: Trying out the $20/month contract-free unlimited data iPhone

Yesterday, I wrote about AT&T's new $20/month unlimited data feature pack. Today, my daughter was home sick from school. Why is that important? Because we gave her a cheap AT&T Pay As You Go phone, which she uses to keep in touch when her bus is late or if she needs to contact us for some reason. Pay As You Go plus idle phone = Data Plan Experimentation!

Read on for details...

Setting up the iPhone with the PAYG SIM

As she lay on the couch, playing Super Mario Galaxy, I plundered her phone, stuck her SIM into my 1.1.4 iPhone (jailbroken but not unlocked with iLiberty+).

Thanks to iLiberty+, the iPhone immediately recognized the SIM (I'd used it before in that phone) and was ready for use. I called it from my land line and it obligingly rang. I could make outgoing calls as well, so I knew I was set in terms of the SIM pairing with the iPhone.

Buying the Data Package

I called up 1-800-901-9878 directly from my landline, as recommended by the AT&T tech. She suggested that I'd avoid problems by calling there rather than trying to set things up from the mobile phone. Sure enough, I got a good, clear connection. Although 611 calls do not charge to your account, they can prove tedious and long.

I entered the phone number and account passcode. The automated system reported the balance for my daughter's account.

Next I told the system that I wanted to "Buy Features". It took me a while to get past the next step. The secret code? Say "MediaNet". (Yesterday's suggestion of "Data Packages" got me absolutely and frustratingly nowhere.) Let the voice drone on a while about the three packages available and then say "Unlimited". They'll ask you to confirm. Say "Yes" and then when prompted, "Buy It".

My account was charged the $19.99 for 30 days and they mentioned that if I buy another unlimited feature pack before the 30 days are up, my time will extend for another 30 days -- so you don't have to play games waiting until the very end of time the way you do when refilling for another year.

The system was very clear. My unlimited data lasts until June 11. It told me so several times and I wrote that down in my datebook. Here's a tip the electronic system suggested. At any time, you can dial 611 on your PayAsYouGo iPhone and ask to "Check My Feature Packages" to get a report on your unlimited data plan.

From WiFi to EDGE

Beginning on WiFi for the moment, I installed the latest version of BossPrefs (version 1.67). Once installed, I launched the program and disabled WiFi.

Initially, it insisted that I had no EDGE service available but persistence paid off. After disabling WiFi and repeatedly enabling EDGE it finally "took". I got a clear "E" in my status bar and an IP address for my EDGE connection in BossPrefs. The lesson here? Don't be discouraged if it takes a while for your EDGE connection to establish, especially if you have a strong signal. (I had 5 bars.)

Testing the Connection

Next, I was off to Safari. My choice of prey? Flickr. That's the same Flickr that ran through my Pay As You Go money back in September faster than a state legislature running through a budget surplus.

I "touched" my way to that data-intense site and spent a few minutes just randomly following links. I'd forgotten how slow EDGE was -- I gave up my data plan a while back on my iPhone. So let me reiterate: Man oh man, EDGE is really slow. Despite that, pictures (eventually) loaded and web pages displayed and I has a satisfying (if snailpaced) tour through Flickr.

It's baaaaack -- balance reports

What I genuinely didn't expect was the AT&T surprise that arrived a minute or two later. I got a message about my most recent usage. (It cost me $0.00). Remember those? They got rid of them on the iPhone plan but not, apparently, on the MediaNet Unlimited plan. Oh well. Maybe AT&T will figure this out eventually. It's annoying but it's not horrible and I don't automatically check my mail so I don't expect it to be a big problem in the long run.

For those of you who want to use this cheap data-only plan and do plan to use mail, consider putting your iPhone in another room at night or turning off EDGE until morning with BossPrefs.

VoiceMail

Here's another thing you'll want to think about. There's no visual voicemail and you'll be charged for VoiceMail access if you check it from your iPhone at the standard minute rate. In my case, that's $0.25 for every minute of voice mail checks.

To save a bit of money, call your number from a landline and decline it from the iPhone. Tap * while your "I can't answer right now" message plays back. You'll be prompted for your VoiceMail code. This number is not your account PIN but the authorization code for managing your voice mail. (Check with AT&T if you have misplaced it.) Here, you can listen to and delete your messages. The iPhone will catch up within a minute or two after you do this and get rid of those annoying red-badged VoiceMail alerts.

Cheap EDGE in Real Life

I'm not sure how much of a real run I'll be able to give my EDGE connection this month. For the next two weeks, my daughter keeps custody of her SIM as the school year finishes. I'll try taking it out around town into WiFi deadspots should the opportunity arise. One place it's not going is to my local Albertson's. If you recall from my early posts, I was never able to get EDGE connections either there or at my pediatrician's office, two reasons that led me to drop my data plan in this WiFi-rich city.

Conclusions

So there you have it. That's my experience adding unlimited data to a standard Pay-as-you-Go AT&T plan. It works fine and it's a lot less trouble than I thought it would be. If you've been hesitating about jumping aboard the iPhone with data bandwagon, this is an incredibly cheap contract-free way to use a current generation iPhone with a data plan.

As for 3G data? I'm not sure whether a PAYG plan works with 3G phones. I hope to find out within a few weeks whether it makes the transition.

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