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Dear Aunt TUAW: What is this cheap iPhone data plan you speak of?

Dear Aunt TUAW,

What is this "cheap" AT&T SIM with data for the iPhone that you often speak of? You've written about it numerous times. Please dish.

Fondest regards always,

Mister Humann

Dear Humann,

Auntie is talking about AT&T's standard PAYG plans. She usually buys the US$100 cards which offer a full year of air time -- that is, the balance will not expire for a year, regardless of how much of the balance is used. Plus, dear Auntie can use that airtime balance to buy data. That's sweeter than a bowl full of Werther's Original.

You may want to start out with a $25 airtime investment (won't expire for 3 months) to make sure that the set-up does, in fact, work on your iPhone.

Auntie is currently using this approach with her 3GS. The model is important because pre-iPhone 3G units won't accept a SIM as-is. They must be jailbroken and activated first. Auntie's 3GS, however, is not currently jailbroken and it's working fine with her AT&T SIM. Here's what she did.

Setting up a PAYG iPhone Account

You can purchase air time for any SIM by visiting an AT&T retail or calling AT&T at 1-800-331-0500. Unlike the Best Buy $10 no-data SIMs ($5 of air time, expires after 90 days) that you can buy, activate with a phone call and pop into your iPhone, PAYG SIMs cannot be set up anonymously. You need that PAYG account to load affordable data onto your iPhone and, much like Auntie on Pinochle night, AT&T is a little more buttoned-up.

To get started, you'll need a home address, a credit card, and a non-iPhone AT&T phone with a valid IMEI identifier and, of course, the SIM number. These allow you to register an account with AT&T. You will not have to leave that credit card on file, however. This will be a one-time payment of $25 or $100 (or however much you want to use to get started). Now you're pre-paid, baby! When your money and time run out, your account dies and you're never charged again unless or until you choose to add more money and time.

If you're planning to use the account primarily for data, make sure to choose the per-minute plan ($0.10/minute, $0.20/text), not the per-day plan. (Your other option is a $2/day unlimited plan, which allows you to pay only on those days you talk on the phone.)

Once your account is charged and you're given a new phone number, head on home (if you didn't do this all by phone, like Auntie does) and put the SIM into your iPhone. It should be recognized immediately and you'll be able to place and receive phone calls.

Adding data

Next you'll want to add data. Auntie recommends starting with a $15 100 MB data package. As you'll see, her recommendations change once you get all the kinks worked out, but starting with 100 MB for 30 days at $15 lets you buy in and test the system for under $25. Plus, that leaves you $10 with which you can call Mom and tell her you love her every day, approximately 3 times per day over that 30 day period. If Auntie has her math right. And she usually does.

To add your data package, call the irritating robot at 611 from your iPhone. This is a free call, which is small recompense for having to interact with the unpleasant, robotic beastie. Make sure to turn on the speaker and flip to the number pad. When you're allowed to speak, say "Buy features" and then "Data Packages." Work your way through the robotic menu to select the 100MB plan for $15. The 'bot will helpfully tell you when your data package expires and how it rolls over. That roll over bit is the good part. Take note of that. Also take note of how you check your data balance (Call 611 and say "Check my feature packages").

Configuring Your iPhone for 3G Data

Next, you need to update your iPhone to work with prepaid data. Auntie's favorite how-to write up can be found over at amirnaor.com. Here are the steps you need to take.

  1. Download Apple's iPhone Configuration Utility and run the installer. The application is placed into your /Applications/Utilities folder. Launch the application with your iPhone connected.
  2. Create a new configuration profile (File > New, Command-N). Edit the name to AT&T PAYG (arbitrary) and add an identifier, e.g. com.sadun.payg (also arbitrary).
  3. In the Advanced settings (scroll down), click configure and set the following fields:
    • APN: wap.cingular
    • User Name: wap@cingulargprs.com
    • Password: CINGULAR1
    • Proxy wireless.cingular.com port: 80
  4. Locate your device on the left source list column. Click it. Click Install next to the profile you just created. On your iPhone, the Settings app launches. Tap Install on the profile.
  5. Disconnect the iPhone, disable WiFi, and test the data connection in Safari.

Annual Data Planning

Leaving aside the $25 airtime proof-of-concept, here's how you can think about budgeting airtime purchases for inexpensive data over a year.

AT&T's feature plan buckets currently go for $25 for 500 MB / $15 for 100 / $5 for 10. Best of all those feature package balance rolls over if renewed before expiration date. That means if you refill the feature plan before the end of the month (i.e. 28 or 29 days -- you can set your iPhone to alarm you), the data rolls over, so you can keep adding $5 for another 10 MB so about a total of $25 + 5 * 11 = $80 for a years data, with $20 left over for the occasional phone call and a budget of 610 MB for the year.

610 MB. Total cost $100.

You can always add more during the year for $25 for another 500 MB, taking away the $5 you would have spent for 10 MB.

So let us say that you use 100/month and need at least 1.2 GB of data for the year. You could buy, say, all that data at the start of the year, or (more likely) start with a $25 buy-in of 500 MB and then go for 3 months at $5 for 10 MB each.

That means each four month period (approximately, since the "months" are going to be 4 weeks...say 28 days), you will pay $40 for 4 months, for a budget of 530 MB. That fits comfortably into the 100/month data budget. If you find you have lots of data left over, you can even skip one of the three $25 payments for a $10 one.

Auntie uses the savings for new doilies, but that's up to you.

1.59 GB. Total cost $120

Assume you go with the $25/5/5/5 plan. You'll need to re-fund your account about 8 months in, assuming you haven't made lots of phone calls and need to refund sooner. At that point, let's say you add about $50.

Month 1 $40
Month 5 $40
Month 9 Add $50, spend $40
(Month 13, new year -- Add in at least $100 so you're guaranteed a full year)

You will have spent $150 for the year total, including about $30 of airtime available. If you want, you can use $25 of that for another 500 MB data bump if you really don't talk much; less if you talk & text.

Auntie's Downside: You must remember to refill on time. Using a 4-week schedule, and a calendar reminder program, helps. It means you always refill on the same day of the week -- and keep in mind you will have to refill 13 times for the year, not 12, which throws off the math a tiny bit. Auntie is, honestly, really bad at this. Scheduled calendar reminders help.

Auntie's Upside: Compare and contrast that cost with *normal* iPhone talk and data plans. Outside of the fact that you have a contract with a $375 cancellation penalty, it will cost you $55-ish or more per month for standard service. This provides data and voice for about $10/month.

Discussion: This kind of data is *not* explicitly approved by AT&T (big surprise, but also no big deal) and, no, this isn't the old style Pick Your Plan that AT&T cracked down on, forcing people to move to standard contracts (Auntie was on a PYP on her original iPhone and it was a really good deal with rollover credits for unused airtime), but you're using it with an out-of-contract unit, so why should it matter if you're doing so on an iPhone versus, say, a cheap Nokia?

Who is this for? Anyone who wants to be able to Google on the go, check e-mail and do very light web surfing. The 100 MB/month calculation is similar to iPad plans. But even if you end up using, say, double the data, for approximately $200/year (that's because the 3 times at $25 doubles to $50, but not the $5 maintenance costs), it's still very affordable.

Here are a few purchase scenarios you might consider.

3 $25 buckets, 9 $5 buckets: $120 + $30 airtime: 1.6 GB costing $150
6 $25 buckets, 6 $5 buckets: $180 + $20 airtime: 3 GB costing $200
9 $25 buckets, 3 $5 buckets: $240 + $10 airtime: 4.5 GB costing $250
12 $25 buckets: $300 + $25 airtime: 6 GB costing $325

For comparison, the expected per-year cost for really basic iPhone service at $55 per month: $660 (Auntie thinks that's the lowest available, you might want to check).

So that's how you get cheap iPhone data plans. Best of all, you can keep adjusting your bucket purchases over the year to match your usage.

Hugs,

Auntie T.

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