Saturday, May 05, 2012

No Service

Every trip I make to the US, I end up wishing I had cell phone internet access.

I have a Canadian data plan on my iPhone. I don't use it a lot, since I can usually find wifi, but occasionally it is very handy, e.g. to use Google Maps to find an address while wandering around. I could use this plan in the US but the roaming charges are ridiculous and I refuse to pay them.

When I got my iPad, I bought the 3G model thinking that at some point I could get a US SIM card and data plan. In the winter when I was in Savannah I stopped at an AT&T store to try to set it up. The two young guys working there were friendly enough, but did not seem at all inclined to help. The first told me I couldn't do it because I had a Canadian SIM card. I told them I didn't have a SIM card. The second guy then said it wouldn't work because I didn't have a SIM card. Couldn't they give me a SIM card? Yeah, they could, but it wouldn't work. Could we try it? No, because I wouldn't have an account. Could they set up an account for me? No, because I'm Canadian. At this point I gave up.

So this trip, I thought I'd try an Apple store and see if they would be more helpful. I explained what I wanted to the greeter. He said "no problem" and gave me an AT&T SIM card and even installed it for me (between greeting each person that came in the store). All I had to do was phone AT&T and set up a plan.

Of course, that wasn't as easy as it sounded. I knew phoning would be a hassle, so first I tried to sign up on the iPad itself. That wouldn't work because it insisted on a US billing address, so my credit card wouldn't work. Then I tried on the AT&T web site, but same problem. So I gave in and phoned. It took me multiple tries to get through the computerized phone system, wait on hold, get the wrong department and get transferred, wait on hold again. Finally I got someone in the correct department who informed me it was impossible. I had to have a credit card with a US billing address. Considering this was for a pre-paid plan, I'm not sure why they care where the money comes from. But it's not like you can argue logic with a call center.

I did a little searching on the web and the suggestion I found was to use a prepaid gift credit card. I've never used one of these but it was worth a try. I picked up a Visa card from a local convenience store. But the instructions with the card said if you wanted to use it on the web you should register it with your address. I needed a US address so I used our hotel address. Finally, I could set up my AT&T plan.

It all seemed to work properly, but I could barely get service. AT&T must not have very good coverage in our area of Las Vegas. When we got to Fresno I tried again. Good service - five bars - but still no data connection. I checked all the settings and checked my account but everything looked correct.

So we stopped at the Apple store on our way out of Fresno. I talked to the greeter, but he had no idea what the problem would be and said I'd need to make an appointment for the Genius Bar. Unfortunately, the next free appointment wasn't for two hours :-(  I wandered through the store thinking what to do next. I could just buy a US iPad (the new model would be nice), but I hated to do that when I didn't know what the problem was. There was a guy behind the Genius Bar who didn't appear to be busy so I asked if he had a couple of minutes to help me. He was a little reluctant (probably not supposed to take walk ups) but agreed to take a look. He checked all the same things I had already checked. Eventually he decided it was because it was a Canadian iPad. (It always strikes me as funny how these support people come up with theories, but then present them as "fact".) But it's a US SIM, I said. He told me to wait a minute and disappeared into the back with my iPad. He returned after 10 or 15 minutes and handed me my iPad saying "here you go". I looked at the screen and there was the little "3G" icon at the top! And I was connected to the internet!

I asked what the fix was. He hesitated and then said they turned it off and back on. Shelley was standing next to me and laughed, "isn't that what you would have told me to do?" I kicked myself for not trying this. The reason I didn't is that iOS tries hard to hide the whole idea of "turning off" your device. They try to abstract away the issue of on or off, but as usual, it's a "leaky" abstraction. Of course, the other question is why it needed to be turned off and on - what did that reset?

So finally, I have my US data. Has it been useful? Not very, since we're mostly out in the boonies and there is poor coverage. It should be more useful when I'm traveling in cities. In any case, it had become a quest and the usefulness wasn't really the motivation any more!

I only signed up for the $15 for 250mb prepaid plan since I wasn't sure how it would work. I'm not sure if that'll be sufficient. If I needed more I could get 3gb for $30. Also, in theory, I think I could swap the SIM card into my iPhone since that's a little easier to carry around and use on the street. Now I just have to remember to cancel my plan when I get home, although the most they could bill was the $50 of the prepaid card.

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