Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Pay-as-you-go voice and SMS service for a contract-free AT&T iPhone with H2O Wireless

Four months ago AT&T declared war on us. Until then I'd had both children on our family plan, using old out-of-contract (but not unlocked!) iPhones with voice only service. On a day of infamy, AT&T hit us with mandatory $30/month data plans. Our too high monthly mobile bills went much higher.

That's when I fought back. Four weeks later, I declared victory. I'd slashed our monthly phone bills, not least by replacing SMS texting with iMessage (even to the SIM-less iPhone 4) and rare paid SMS. As a side-effect of operation vengeance I even picked up a new iPhone 4S - iMessage and a new subsidy made it cost-effective.

There was only one downside. Number 2 son loved using my iPhone 4 as an iPod Touch, but he no longer had voice service. He really didn't care about that, but we're heading to DC for a family trip. He has a knack for getting lost, so I wanted to be able to phone him.  I decided to follow up on an H2O wireless plan (AT&T reseller) I'd considered last November ...

Giving your old iPhone to your kid: working around AT&T's mandatory data plan

I'm planning to test a H2O Wireless SIM Card (no jailbreak or unlocking for AT&T phones) ... there's a MyH2O app on the App Store. However the H2O wireless cards expire after 30 days, so they're better suited to a heavy voice/data user than to our guys; there's really no saving over our family plan....

I dropped into Best Buy to check out the options. I found two quite different H2O plans:

  • a voice and SMS only plan with an initial 90 day expiration. $10 price includes $7 of talk time and another 30 days to the expiration. Afterwords expiration time depends on how much you buy: $10 is 30 day, $20 is 60, $90 is 90 and $100 is 1 year. Whatever you pay talk is 0.05/min and SMS is 0.05/message.
  • a voice/SMS/data plan with a 5-30 day expiration depending whether payment is per-minute or per-month [1]. Not clear if $10 package includes any services.

I had to make a quick call, and based on the premise that I should only buy what I need now, I went for the voice/SMS only. [2] For you, dear reader, I suggest carefully studying the cost of the new $100 1 year expiration option for the voice/data plan. It's not clear how one switches from voice/SMS to voice/data, I suspect it involves buying a new SIM card and switching the old number (see Help, My Account)

Briefly, it worked. Here's what I did after I bought the card (the procedures for data plan support are slightly more involved, but I'm only writing on what worked for me):

  • Went to a local "World of Wireless" shop and paid them $5 to punch out a micro-SIM from the H2) standard SIM [3]
  • Followed the directions and went to H2OWirelessNow.com/activate
    • Registered, providing my Yahoo.com (junk) email and my Google Voice number. Maybe overly protective, I noticed that the 'spam-me' checkbox was opt-in, which is commendable.
    • After I registered Chrome "sat there". I had to lick 'Activate" on the menu to get to the next step.
    • Choose MINUTE Plan
    • From Activate I entered the ActFast code, desired area code, and then city.
  • I then picked up my confirmation mail from Yahoo.com account. It said the phone would be ready in 10 minutes and told me my new number.
  • About 6 minutes later I put the micro-SIM in the iPhone and powered it up. On startup it said H2O in the connection bar.
  • I tried phoning out, but nothing happened. So I called into the new phone -- that worked. After that I could call out too.
  • iMessage still worked (yay).
  • Dial *777# send to check account balance and expiration. It said my balance was $6.55 and it would expire on 5/5/12 (60 days, not 90!)
  • Tested MyH2O.app - worked quite well to show balance. I found a very brief call cost about 5 cents or so.
  • I connected to the recharge page and added $10. That brought my total to $16.96 and moved the expiration to 5/4/2012 (90 days)

I'm pleased. I may add $10 every few months, that will likely cover Number 2's use of the iPhone 4 -- at a wee fraction of what AT&T was charging us with a mandatory and unwanted data plan [4]. (MISTAKE 5/18/2012: I missed a very big gotcha! After the initial 90 days the expiration falls to 30 day for $10, so the actually minimal cost of the phone is around $100 a year. Significantly more than I'd imagined.)

If you purchase $10 renewals via credit card they may appear on your statement as "Shop Locus 800-6205809 Nj".

The plan includes voice mail [6], thought Apple's elegant voice mail won't work without a data plan and accessing voice mail uses up plan minutes. Instead I configured my son's Google Voice number to be the voice mail service [5]. If he misses a call he gets an SMS notification with a message transcription, and an email with a link to the voice file.

At this time, the experiment looks promising.

- fn -

[1] That's what it said on the package. Later, visiting the H2O site, it seemed there were more data plan options than the package suggested -- including a new $100 payment that takes a year to expire -- reminds me of the plan a friend used with his Android phone.

[2] One fringe benefit -- no data plan means less concern about Apple's fake parental controls.

[3] WOW is a different scene from AT&T stores. This is a cash-centric business. Maybe some other sites will cut the micro-SIM for free, or you could try cutting down the card with a razor blade, but Dawayne did it with flair and the card fit my son's iPhone 4 perfectly. Well worth the $5.

[4] It's even cheaper than the $10/month added line phone (plus $4 fees/taxes) we used to have -- and SMS is cheaper. Of course AT&T may terminate this loophole any day now, but they can't force a data rate on us. They can only close off a revenue source; that's hard to do when SMS is going away and desperation is setting in.

[5] Our family has worked from a free Google Apps and family domain for five years. It's trivial now to give each family member a Google Voice account. Within GV there's an option to 'add GV' to any verified phone, makes it the answering service.

[6] The setup directions are poorly written and, I suspect, might be partly in error. I didn't try though.

See also:


H2O site


Update 5/19/2012

We've done well with H2O Wireless so far, but this feels very much like a business on the edge. For example, I wanted another voice/text (no data) SIM for another son, but I couldn't find it on their web site. The site only has voice, text and data SIMs. I did find a voice/text only SIM via Best Buy.

Recharging is an odd workflow. It's done only through their web site, not the MyH2O app. It's something like this:

  1. Go the H2O web site and login
  2. Click on Recharge H2O Wireless
  3. Choose "Do You Need a PIN"? In fact this simply adds minutes, there's no 15 digit PIN installed.
  4. Enter the number (again) and Click Search. (should be labeled Confirm Number) 
  5. Now you can select an amount to enter (example: $10). A confirmation email is sent to you account.
  6. They don't take AMEX. That's a bad sign; AMEX is quick to dump ill-behaved vendors.

This time activating a new SIM card didn't work quite as quickly. It took about 5-8 minutes for the activation email to show up in my Yahoo (junk email account -- I cleared out all the spam and junk so incoming email would not get lost).

Other than that however it worked well. I noticed this time that with each transaction there's a message summarizing cost and balance -- most helpful with kids. I also realized that the way expiration works if someone doesn't use the phone much they build up quite a large balance -- but if the expiration date is hit it all goes at once. So the phone costs about $100 a year, not $40 a year. Tricky, tricky.

Update 8/28/2013

Two odd things have happened:

  • A $10 payment extends account lifespan by 90 days instead of 30 days. So for low cost use the phone can cost as $40 a year. I wonder if someone lost a lawsuit. 
  • The kids phones are now showing 3G data available. It doesn't actually work, but it's shown as available. This can mess up the iPhone because it tries to send iMessage messages as data instead of as SMS. I had to go in Settings and turn off mobile data.

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