Goddamn I love Neil deGrasse Tyson
In the last month I've had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belgium and New Zealand, and one of the small aspects I envied was the way everyone had a cheap phone plan with a simple pay-as-you-go card. People I talked to didn't complain about their $80/month base plan rates like I am forced to get on test phones here in the US. Instead they could toss ten Euros or 30 NZ dollars on a card whenever they run low on data, voice, or messaging. I wrote up how great my unlocked iPhone was in those situations and how I wished for such a thing in the US.
A reader named Tom left a comment this morning on the post pointing out an amazing resource: a wiki written by travelers about options and pricing for many countries around the world and curiously, I found the US listed there. I scanned the options and decided the AT&T deal sounded pretty close to the Euro-style SIM pricing I found in Belgium, so today I stopped in a store and try it out.
You will need an unlocked phone for this to work. I have a new Nokia Lumia 800 Windows 7.5 Mango phone purchased off eBay and it appeared to be from Italy when I first charged it up. You can also use old jailbroken/unlocked iPhones or newer fully unlocked (unsubsidized, priced starting at $899 or so) iPhones.
Go into an AT&T store and ask for a GoPhone data SIM (microSIM for my phone, they had both sizes). Put $15 credit on it and you will get a receipt with your phone number on it (save this) and 100Mb of data usage good for 30 days. They also offer 500Mb of data for $25 and you can top up online using the myprepaidrefill.com website. You just need your number and they can text you a PIN to get you all logged in.
From there, you can buy talk time at $0.10/minute which isn't bad at all. I put a bunch of credit on it just to test things out and they also offer messaging at 200/$5, 1000/$10, or unlimited/$20 good for 30 days.
About the only tricky thing was getting the APN settings right to enable data. I searched online at several forums and eventually got this to work with the Lumia:
proxy server/URL: wireless.cingular.com
proxy port: 80
So far voice calling works ok (after an annoying 15sec message saying what URL to refill your account at) and I can get data to work but only edge, not 3G at the moment. I think it's due to my location which has a weak signal anyway but it could be my settings which I'll continue to tweak.
Still, I was kind of surprised to see a very European style SIM pricing scheme can work in the US and is available today if you have the right phone for it. You could put $100 of phone talk time credit on it (1,000 minutes good for a year), buy 100Mb or 500Mb of 3G data and add $5 worth of texting (both good for 30 days) and have a fairly cheap smartphone plan that would only run you about $30-40/month depending on use instead of the standard $60-80/month plans most US telecoms require for smartphones.
We must reject this. We must recover our sanity where 100 million users does not represent the goal criteria of every new service. We must recover the mindset where a service used by 10,000 users, or 1,000 users, or 100 users is *admired, respected, and praised* for its actual success. All of those could be sustainable, profitable ventures. If TechCrunch doesn't care to write about you, all the better.
This pretty well sums up my most recent talk, and my thinking for the past few years.
I've had the Verizon iPhone 4S since it launched last Fall, and I've now taken trips to three countries to use it. I've spent extensive time in Belgium and New Zealand using local micro SIM cards to great effect, and due to a Verizon snafu I've had to use their international service in Belgium as well and I can report it indeed is grossly overpriced. I figure I would share a couple tips and do a quick review after a few weeks abroad.
Step 1: Call Verizon after 60 days and ask for an "International Unlock"
The key step before you go abroad is to make sure you own your Verizon 4S for at least two months and then call customer service to request an International Unlock (I found out about that at ZDnet). They will try to pitch you their international calling plan but refuse it or say you will consider it if the unlock doesn't pan out.
You have to do this over the phone, the reps I talked to inside a Verizon store couldn't do the procedure. Also, make sure the person on the phone knows how to do this, because the first time I called it was the person's first attempt at ever doing it and it turned out they didn't complete the task properly, causing problems later on.
Step 2: When you get off the plane and through customs, look around the airport for SIM card kiosks
In Belgium after I got my bags and before I left the airport, there was just one little booth selling cards from BASE.be, a local mobile provider. They were fantastic, offering 500Mb of data plus 15 Euro of talk time and texting for only 15 Euro. I also set up topping up the card via SMS, so after a few phone calls and some heavy downloading on my laptop (you can tether the connection) I could simply send a text to get more credit.
In New Zealand's Auckland international airport, there were two options, Vodafone or Telecom and I selected Vodafone since I'd heard of them before (seen them on soccer jerseys). They offered 250Mb of data plus a bunch of texting and calls for $45NZ. I used up all the bandwidth halfway through my week and topped it up again via SMS.
My local Verizon rep said the USA is the only country in the world that requires you to have an expensive phone plan with hundreds to thousands of minutes of talk time plus data plus texting. Every other country does fine with these cheap pay-as-you-go cards. I would LOVE to have the same setup I had in Belgium, where 10 Euro could last me weeks of heavy phone use instead of the $70/month plan I have with Verizon.
Step 3: Carry a paperclip and a holder to keep your old Verizon SIM in when you're not using it
I have an old SD card case (pictured above) I carry in my travel backpack with all my old micro SIMs and a paperclip. It's really easy to pop the paperclip into the side of your iPhone, slide out the tray, and drop another card in. Every card has its own unlock code and you have to be sure to remember them because they can get locked out from use if you fail on four attempts. It's also fun to feel like a character in The Wire as you can jump from SIM to cheap SIM, switching to a new number each time. Be sure to keep your original Verizon SIM for when you get back home to the US, otherwise you'll have problems.
Warning: don't use Verizon for international use
Since my first attempt at unlocking didn't work, my first use of an International SIM in Belgium didn't quite work out. I could get onto the new network, but I couldn't make calls or get any data. I eventually had to pop in my Verizon card and call Verizion to have them double check (and I also enabled an international plan in case that didn't work out). Data cost me $20.54/Mb in Belgium as I checked the Verizon.com site for a contact number, then I had to wait on hold at several dollars per minute. When they fixed my unlock, new SIMs worked fine, and in the meantime I tried out another local provider and it seemed to work too. I also had no trouble using my Verizon phone in roaming mode in Canada while at the airport, using data from Verizon's own plan.
Verizon's top international plan costs $125 for only 300Mb of data (On AT&T last summer, I used their $200 800Mb plan for two weeks in Australia without going over) and thankfully Verizon counted my international call/data time before I enabled it into my $125 option (I didn't have to pay the $20.54/Mb price).
Bonus: crazy local numbers aren't all bad
You might want to keep your phone's local US number when abroad (especially when traveling with other Americans that want to call you easily), but I'm more of a texting person and thanks to Apple's iMessage feature, I could text any other American I knew while traveling using data instead of my SMS allocation. Getting a local number proved handy for having a way for local people to contact me without them having to use international talk time as well.
Beware of international data hogs
One last tip: in my experience and talking with friends, it seems like Google Maps is the worst culprit when it comes to data use. It is super useful for getting around, but all those map tiles quickly add up. I was lost in Sydney my first afternoon in Australia last summer and by the end of my first 24hrs, I had amazingly used up 200Mb of my 800Mb allocated for the 2 weeks. After that I took the advice of friends and moved to using OffMaps as much as I could, which uses OpenStreetMaps along with your GPS location to give you a good idea of where you are without tons of network use (you download your maps on wifi, then use them in an offline way).
It's also a good idea to take advantage of free/cheap WiFi in cafes, hotels, and at business offices as much as possible.
Conclusion: international unlock rocks
Considering that in Belgium I got more than Verizon's top plan for the equivalent of $13, it's a no brainer: get your Verizon 4S unlocked and always go with the cheap local SIM option. It's quick and easy to get a local SIM at the airport, and pop it in. The first time I did this, I had to be on WiFi and connected to iTunes to "activate" my SIM slot, but my last trip to New Zealand didn't require that and a new SIM worked fine after popping it in.
If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you're 53 years old, you've been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn't finish high school, and you have a grandson who you're now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You're lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy's. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn't hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don't have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly.
Why libraries matter: a great comment at MetaFilter.
Conferences come and go, they ebb and flow. Sometimes they fade away while other times they grow until quality suffers.
Webstock this year was phenomenal, matching reviews I've heard in years past. Where typical conferences have most speakers giving a 6 out of 10 talk with the occasional 9, I'd say this year's event was filled with two days of 9s and 10s, with only one or two 7/10 talks that still had something you could take away.
The audience was warm, inviting, and extremely friendly. The other speakers and I bonded quickly over the course of the first hours together and came away from it as a large group of new friends, hanging out around the clock over the week. I had only met three or four of the other speakers before but I came away from the conference knowing them all like old friends.
Technology conferences are great places to go and get recharged. You get to hear new ideas, learn about history, and meet like-minded folks. I watched every single talk in the main conference hall over the course of two days and it quickly became my favorite technology conference to date. Speakers were on point with interesting talks, absolutely beautiful visuals, and rarely did I ever find myself checking a clock.
To sum up my favorites: Kathy Sierra came back to the conference scene and dazzled everyone. Jeremy Keith did that thing where you know people when they were younger along with you and then one day you suddenly realize they're beyond one of your peers and they are now one of the greats. His talk was my favorite of the conference because it blended a deep knowledge of history intertwined with the things we do today and what is to come. I had no idea until I watched it, but it meshed well with my talk, covering some of the same concepts. Erin Kissane's talk was great as well. The first day ended with three spectacular talks back to back, with Lauren Beukes telling us about sci-fi, South Africa, and the world ahead. Amy Hoy gave an inspirational talk on how to bounce back from bad advice and worse feedback. Matthew Inman made everyone laugh their asses off for nearly an hour. The second day went well too with the brightest spots being Scott Hanselman's time management talk and Jessica Hische's stunningly beautiful work. Adam Lisagor gave tons of great advice to freelancers and Michael Johnson took us inside Pixar. The closing talk by Derek Handley ended the conference on a perfect note, asking us not just to strive to do well but also to do good (in the world).
The setting for the conference is New Zealand and I always heard it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth and my week there didn't disappoint. Given that technology conferences are an easy business write-off, a conference like Webstock allows you to mix a bit of tourism with your business travel. Warm, sunny weather in the dead of my winter wasn't bad either. Don't get me wrong, it's fun to attend events in San Francisco, New York City, and Austin, but I've long wanted to find design and technology conferences in more interesting places and Webstock more than fills the bill in that regard.
I had a good time speaking at the event (more on that when video of it comes out), meeting lots of wonderful people in the audience, and being treated like a king by the amazing staff that runs the entire conference impeccably. It was easily the best speaking gig I've ever had. I'm planning on making this conference a regular visit in the future (as an attendee) and I urge anyone else (especially in America) that has yearned for a top-quality, well-run technology conference in a place you've always wanted to visit to do the same.
When the haters hate, when the bigoted politicos try to drag us back there, when the warped logic and the lies and the bullshit starts to fly, it's worth remembering an uncle I never knew, and the moment when he knelt on the floor of his apartment, opened the door of the oven, and leaned in.
A great story that serves as a warning about what life was like just a couple generations ago.