Consumer Experiences, Eastern Hemisphere, Travel

my telecom woes

This past week, the first bad decision of my planning for our big trip became apparent. And it has to do with my phone. A few months ago, I read a bunch of articles, including this one from Nomadic Matt, this one from Forbes, and a few others. For years, I had been using an iPhone with AT&T’s standard family plan. But neither is well suited for doing lots of international travel, for a couple reasons.

First, lots of the advice I read was to get a global, unlocked, dual-SIM phone, and Apple doesn’t make such a thing. Second, AT&T doesn’t have competitive pricing when traveling overseas. My plan was this:

  1. Let my AT&T contract expire, then unlock and sell my iPhone. Transfer my old phone number to Google Voice, and set things up so it would ring my new phone or go to Google’s voicemail with transcription.
  2. Buy a global, unlocked, dual-SIM Android phone.
  3. Sign up with Telestial / Ekit / JT for their Explorer SIM product, which has a good international plan with decent rates in foreign countries. Use that in the first SIM card slot.
  4. In countries we’re staying more than a few days, get a local SIM card, which has better rates in that country than the Telestial plan. Use that in the second SIM card slot, swapping it out whenever I go to a new country where I get a new card.

After some shopping, I settled on the BLU Studio Energy phone. It’s not the fastest around, and it’s definitely not a premiere brand, but it’s got a great feature that nobody else has, and that’s battery life. The thing has such a huge battery built in that you can use it to recharge your other devices (iPad, for instance). I knew that transitioning from iOS to Android would be a challenge, based on what I’ve heard from friends. But since Android is now the dominant player in the market I assumed the software must be pretty well ironed out these days. This past week, I learned my assumptions were wrong. The OS is bad in a way that I forgot was even possible. The design of the core OS, the vendor-specific extensions, and third party apps is all totally different. There’s no consistency to help you figure out what’s wrong when there’s a problem.

The next problem I ran into was Google Voice. It also is poorly designed. There’s a global set of rules that govern how calls are routed, but then there’s a hidden set of screens that also govern rules for specific groups of users, including users who aren’t in a group. The set of screens that are mostly hidden apparently take precedence over the configuration screen that’s right there in your face. But even after I figured that out, Google Voice drops about half the calls it routes to my phone. That’s just not acceptable.

Lastly, I’ve gotten very frustrated with Telestial / Ekit / JT. I’m not sure why this phone carrier has three names, but they do. Some web pages refer to one of the names, but then you’ll run into a different web page that uses another name. Weird. But whatever…

One of the biggest irritants is with making domestic calls in the US. Normally, we use 10-digit dialing and don’t have to use the international format of +1 before the 10-digit number. For whatever reason, when I dial a 10 digit number, it usually doesn’t complete. And when it does, it charges me a much higher price than if I dial the “+1” before. The irritating part is that caller ID of inbound calls just show the 10-digit number, so you can’t just hit the button to call back the person who just called you. Instead, you have to manually dial their number with the +1 prefix. How dumb.

The other problem is data. At first, I struggled with the phone a couple days to figure out why I couldn’t get any data access. That’s when I realized I didn’t buy a data plan, and the voice plan didn’t include any data. OK, that’s my fault, I guess. So I bought their cheapest data plan. In the course of 4 days just doing normal stuff like Google Maps and email, I burned through $63 worth of data. That is not sustainable. Their data rates are just too ridiculous, especially for the US.

So, I came up with a new plan:

  1. Ditch Google Voice. Just eliminate it from the equation. I don’t really want my text messages to only appear in the Hangouts app, and I don’t really need transcription of voice messages. Given the poor UI, lack of support, and ongoing concerns that Google is going to just cancel the feature at any moment, I’ll sleep better if I’m not tied to it.
  2. Get a T-Mobile month-to-month plan with a new SIM, and port my old number (currently parked at Google Voice) to T-Mobile. I’ll have a huge amount of fast data both domestically and internationally, unlimited international texts, and international calls are just 20 cents a minute, which is on par with the Telestial plan.

And that’s what I did today. Now text messages work, I can use Google Maps for free, and phone calls go through every time.

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