Americans, our mobile phones cost way too much

So it’s no secret that we’re moving back to the US in April. As can be expected, I’m starting to think about all the logistical things that we’ll need when we get there, particularly mobile phones.

Right now, Bex and I both have unlocked iPhones. We are prepaid customers with Blau.de, a German MVNO of E-Plus. We spend probably something like a combined €40 a month for prepaid access on our phones. It costs us €0.09 for outgoing calls to any German number, €0.09 a text to any German mobile, and €10/month for 1GB of 3G data. This is fantastic. (Don’t want to go with Blau? Here’s a handy chart easily comparing the 14 different options.)

So, in the US, what are our options?

If we want to keep our iPhones, our choices are pretty limited.

We can either go with AT&T (and sign a new two-year contract). For two people (family plan), 550 minutes/month, unlimited texting and Internet on both phones: $170/month.

Or, we can keep my existing T-Mobile plan. In that case, we’re looking at $80/month for unlimited everything for one line, nearly double that (about $150) with another line. And, of course, because T-Mobile and AT&T use different 3G frequencies, we’re limited to EDGE speeds in the US.

Another possibility is H20 Wireless, the only AT&T MVNO in the US, which offers unlimited text/minutes and 1GB of 3G data at $120/month for two phones. They don’t get stellar reviews, but as far as I can tell this largely has to do with their terrible customer service and the fact that they claim to offer unlimited (which turns out not actually to be unlimited).

$120/month is obviously better than $170/month, but it’s obviously not as good as what we’ve been paying here in Europe (€40 or $53/month prepaid for two phones, including 3G.)

Of course, if we sell our iPhones and get something else, like an Android phone, then we can get better speeds on T-Mobile and their MVNO, Simple Mobile.

The worst part, in the US, we get charged for incoming calls as well! As far as I know, this is the only country in the world that does thing. Why can’t we have Blau.de-like service in the US?

CTIA, I’m sorry, but you’re just ripping us off.

Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano

Update (March 6, 2012): I just found out about Straight Talk, an AT&T MVNO that offers $45/mo for unlimited min/text/data. Recently, the company started offering a SIM-only plan (BYO phone), which can be used with the iPhone. Some folks like it so far. Very interesting.

My iPhone tracking data

So in the wake of this iPhone tracking data scandal I did what a lot of people did — download the app and track my own data.

My map is plotted here:

Now, I got my iPhone in February 2011 in California. I have no data for the two weeks I was in California, nor the layover in Dallas/Forth Worth airport. Nor do I have any data showing my trips earlier this year to Hannover, Budapest, and two weekends ago to Aubel, Belgium and on to Maastricht, the Netherlands. I just have data for the immediate area around Bonn and my trip last week to Berlin.

Interesting.

iPhone 4 in Germany: Complexity Abounds

So I get that people want the iPhone. I get that it’s a really sexy, really popular handset. I’m not convinced that I’ll buy one just yet, but I signed up for T-Mobile’s email updates about it, and just yesterday got this:

But seriously T-Mobile (Germany’s exclusive iPhone provider), do you really need SEVEN different plans?

In fact, there’s so many, that they need two pages to fit them all. Here’s the first four:

I won’t go over all of them, but here’s the bottom line:

There’s an inverse relationship between what you pay for the phone and what you pay in a monthly contract.

The cheapest option: €300 for the phone and €25/month, €0,29/min to all German mobiles and landlines, 200MB of data/month.

The most spendy option: €1 for the phone and €120/month, unlimited calls and data.

While I know that AT&T isn’t exactly the most beloved provider, I find it almost offensive that you’d pay €25 or even the next two levels €45 or €60, where you have to pay for minutes/texts on top of the service that you already pay per month. Not to mention that a text message to other providers is €0,19 — that’s more than double what I pay now on Blau.de.

Now yes you can buy the phone unlocked in Germany and use it with any of Germany’s myriad of prepaid mobile providers. Heck, you can even take your existing SIM card, trim it and put it into your new iPhone 4 and/or iPad.

While I do want a new iPhone (I’m still rocking the original 4GB first-gen), I can’t really justify signing a two-year contract at absurdly high prices just to get a phone.

VOA’s new app for Iranian iPhone users is a bit silly

I’m a few days behind on this one, but FP Passport has a link to a new announcement for a new application that “will allow users in Iran to download and send content to [Voice of America]’s Persian News Network with their iPhones.”

I don’t really have much to add beyond what David Kenner aptly wrote:

I’m sure that this initiative was begun with the best of intentions. However, there’s only one problem — oh, who am I kidding, there are a whole slew of problems. To begin with, a normal iPhone won’t work in Iran: AT&T, the only carrier for the iPhone, doesn’t provide service in the country. The very wealthy have been able to get their hands on “unlocked” iPhones, which can be used with any carrier in Iran. However, the number of these phones in Iran are few and far between. But even for those with unlocked iPhones, there is no data network in Iran that would allow them to connect to the Internet.

Our intrepid Iranian friend, therefore, would also have to be in an area where he could pick up a wireless connection with his iPhone. At that point, of course, he could also send his video and pictures using more old-fashioned technology — for example, a laptop.

To be fair, though, I did use my unlocked iPhone when I was in Iran in March 2008. I also was able to use an Internet connection on my phone with Irancell — however, the only web page that I could consistently load was nytimes.com

Is unlocking your iPhone legal?

Since I unlocked my iPhone last week, various friends have asked me if it is, indeed, legal. My impression was always that it technically wasn’t under the DMCA, but I was heartened when I found this exemption ruling from late last year:

The Librarian of Congress, on the recommendation of the Register of Copyrights, has announced the classes of works subject to the exemption from the prohibition against circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works. Persons making noninfringing uses of the following six classes of works will not be subject to the prohibition against circumventing access controls (17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1)) during the next three years.

. . .

5. Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.

I’m no legal expert, but it would seem that using a program to unlock your phone is indeed legal. Whether or not it’s legal to sell said software may be another story.

Unlocking an iPhone

Macworld:

By Cyrus Farivar

If you’re one of the million people who’ve purchased an iPhone since the end of June, you probably signed up with Apple’s exclusive carrier in the U.S., AT&T, when you activated your phone. That means your iPhone identifies itself to AT&T’s network using an AT&T SIM card, a smart card that’s located in a small tray between your iPhone’s sleep/wake button and its recessed headphone jack.

But what if you’re planning a trip to Europe and rather than paying AT&T to use the networks of its European partners, you want to take advantage of the favorable rates and local phone numbers offered by replacing your AT&T SIM card with a pre-paid European card? Or what if you’d prefer to use T-Mobile as your cellular provider, rather than AT&T?

In the past month several groups have announced that they’ve found a way to “unlock” the iPhone, allowing it to use a SIM card from any provider. (Keep in mind that this is only half the story: the iPhone uses the GSM radio band for its communications, meaning that it’ll only work with providers that use the GSM network. In the U.S., that means T-Mobile and AT&T.)

In August, a group of hackers demonstrated a method for unlocking SIM cards and sold its software to resellers, who in turn began selling it to the public for as much as $100 last week.

But another group has came up with its own hack that, with the help of some free, open-source software, lets you unlock your iPhone in about an hour, free of charge. Below, I’ll show you how it works — and it does work, because I’ve used this technique to unlock my own phone. (One important caveat: Certain AT&T-only features, such as Visual Voicemail, will not work when you’re connected to other cellular networks.)

How to unlock your iPhone

Booya! I finally got my iPhone yesterday and spent last night and this morning figuring out how to GSM unlock it — letting me use my T-Mobile SIM card with ease.

How’d I do it? I’ll have a forthcoming article for Macworld explaining soon, but until then, you can read this guide and thank the good folks at ModMyiPhone.com. I followed their instructions — but after three failed tries, I installed AppTapp before doing the faux activation, and that seemed to work.

Woohoo!