In my last post, I described my recent experience and resultant frustration with a data roaming bill incurred while using my iPhone during a trip to Mexico.  I was a dedicated Fido customer for over 12 years, but due to the way in which they handled my complaint, I vowed to do whatever I could to reduce the amount of future revenue I sent their way.

The solution I discovered entails taking advantage of cheap iPad-specific data-only plans, activating the account with an iPad, then using the activated SIM card in an unlocked iPhone.  This process is necessary because the iPhone’s OS lacks the data carrier account setup structure that exists in the iPad 3G line, and you don’t really want to carry a bulky iPad out to a nightclub.  At the moment you also cannot use an iPad 2 as a Personal Hotspot (to act as an Internet bridge or tether for other WiFi devices) the way you can use an iPhone.

This article also presumes the user has an iPhone that is not carrier-locked.  Factory-unlocked iPhones have been available in Canada and other countries for some time, but are not the norm in all markets.  I’ll talk a little bit about SIM-unlocking in a future post.  I also presume you’ll spend $650+ to buy an iPad with 3G if you don’t already have one.  This may seem like a silly request, but not only is it easy to make a financial case for buying a seemingly expensive handheld computer to access cheaper data plans, but they’re pretty damned cool devices.  (You can also borrow one off of one of your friends simply for the purpose of activating a foreign data account, or buy one and sell it on eBay when the account is set up)

The first step was to investigate the possibility of obtaining a domestic data plan in the foreign countries I travel to.  There is a huge gap in data rates between domestic and foreign/roaming users, and the only reason this exists is clearly because roaming users have no choice but to use a local network as a foreign roaming client, and pay whatever their home carrier feels like charging them.   My $10/mo U.S. Data Roaming Add-On plan through Fido gives me a lower roaming rate of $1/mb when traveling in the U.S., but this is still a very significant premium over what domestic US users pay.  It’s also crazy to consider that even after going through that, I would still have to potentially pay several dollars to do a single benign action, like post a picture to Facebook.

When I investigated the possibility of signing on as a local customer of a foreign carrier in the past, I was always presented with insurmountable obstacles.  North American carriers, with few exceptions, highly subsidize the sale of mobile phones in order to tie users in to longer-term contracts.  To sign a contract, you typically have to be a resident of that country with an active credit history in that country, along with local ID.

The introduction of the iPad changed the landscape.  Since the iPad (with 3G) was sold without a carrier SIM lock, and was primarily sold through channels other than mobile phone carriers (i.e. Apple Retail Stores), the mobile phone carriers are all on a level playing field and don’t have to worry about recovering their subsidy investment.  As a result they have made it much easier to establish a relationship with them.

Since Mexico is where I experienced the highest charge for data on a per-MB basis, I began researching the options for foreigners there.  Telcel seems to be one of the primary carriers, and they have a special plan called Amigo, which is data-only.  (Other carriers offering iPad plans are Iusacell and Movistar.  Telcel’s least expensive plan provides 15MB of data with 1 day of validity, for 15 pesos (about $1.25 in US or Canadian) and their most expensive provides 3GB of data, valid for 30 days, for 499 pesos (about $42 US or Canadian).  Based on the research I have done so far though, and even though Apple Mexico’s iPad 2 web site states that you can get an iPad 3G data plan without a contract, it seems as though this plan and others are only available to residents of Mexico.  If anyone has any experience obtaining an Amigo plan, or any other iPad 3G plan in Mexico as a foreigner, I’d love to hear your experience so I might share that (and take advantage of it myself).  As an aside, you can see the huge disparity between the $900 that Fido charged me for my 30MB of data usage while roaming on Telcel’s network, when a local customer would have paid roughly $2.50 for the same amount of data.

AT&T MicroSIM Card

AT&T MicroSIM Card

In the US, buying an iPad-specific data plan is as simple as buying a $15 Micro-SIM card at your local AT&T store or online, popping it in to your iPad and punching in your particulars + credit card info.  You don’t have to set up an “account” while you are in the AT&T store as that is done through the device.  Currently there are two data plan options – 250MB for $14.99 per month or 2GB for $25.00 per month.  This is charged automatically to your credit card each month, and when you hit your usage quota, data access is shut off until the next 30 day period commences.  Unused data does not roll over.  The math is fairly obvious, but even at my highly-discounted $1/mb rate, Fido would charge me $250 for what AT&T would charge $14.99.  The regular roaming rate would be $750 for that $14.99 of data.

Considering that I currently pay Fido $10/mo just for the “privilege” of paying $1/mb for US data roaming, these plans look pretty attractive.  Even if I only visit the US two or three times each year, keeping the plan active on an ongoing basis still pays for itself.  Plus I don’t have to worry about being a data miser, I don’t have to run between WiFi hotspots, and I don’t have to worry about whether the hotel’s network connection has enough bandwidth for me to do my work.  (Have you ever attended a technology conference?  The hotels are filled with bandwidth-sucking nerds, often bringing a hotel’s Internet connection to its knees and therefore unusable.  Having the AT&T option even as a backup adds greatly to one’s productivity.)

Activating a Micro-SIM through the iPad interface is dead-easy.  Apple has created a simple interface, integrated into iOS, to allow the carrier to collect your billing info and activate the account.  You are typically up and running within minutes of starting the process.  AT&T is only targeting US residents with their service however, so there are some challenges associated with setting up an account if you are a non-US resident.

iPad AT&T Signup Screen

iPad AT&T Signup Screen

When the form appears to activate the account, non-US residents are faced with a number of obstacles.  The interface is rigid, and requires a US-based mailing and billing address.  The billing address also needs to match that which your credit card issuer has on file.  There is no way to spoof a foreign address in to the fields (Zip Code forces a 5 digit numeric and won’t accept alphanumeric postal codes, for example).  There are ways to overcome these controls however.

Credit card fraud is, and always has been, a widespread problem.  Internet-based merchants combat the problem by performing a billing address verification, which confirms whether a user-provided address (generally where goods are being shipped) is the same as that which is on file with the credit card issuer.  For many merchants, if a billing address cannot be reconciled to a credit card, the transaction is not approved.  This check is typically done in real-time, presenting a physical obstacle to the customer.

What a lot of credit card customers do not know, however, is that multiple “authorized alternate billing addresses” can be put on file with your credit card issuer.  These are addresses to which the cardholder authorizes goods to be shipped to.  My personal experience is with American Express, so my experience cannot necessarily be duplicated with each card or issuer.

So, I used my Canadian American Express card, and provided the US street address (as the billing address) of my package-receiving depot in the US (on file with AmEx).  Voilà, this was accepted by AT&T’s system and my AmEx was successfully charged for the first month of service, and subsequent months thereafter.

Since few people have the need for a US-based package-receiving service, how would someone else get around the US street address requirement?  It’s a lot easier than you might think!  Since this is really just a placeholder address on file with your credit card issuer, and since they would never have any need to send physical mail to that address, just pick an address out of thin air.  It could be a friend or relative who lives in the US, a vacation property, or it could be a package receiving depot with which you have no relationship (The UPS Store has hundreds of locations all over the US).  Or you could even just pick any address at random.  AT&T does all of its billing-related communication via email, and anything they might send to the mailing address will be junk anyway, so just pick any address and use it!  Provide “your” US-based street address to your credit card issuer as an “alternate authorized billing address” then key that same address in to the Payment & Billing Information section of the Cellular Data Account setup screen of your iPad.  It worked for me, and hopefully it works for you.  (One aside though – some online billing address verification systems only cross-reference to the primary billing address and not to additional “alternate” billing addresses.  While the “alternate” addresses can be verified by the merchant (a human) manually phoning in for verification, AT&T’s signup system is fully automated, so this is not a possible remedy).

The other thing you can try – talk to a rep at an AT&T store and see if they can manually set up and activate your account in the store using a non-US billing address.  One of the companies I own is a dealer for a Canadian mobile phone carrier, and their system does allow us to set up a non-Canadian as an iPad data plan user manually – this process may work at an AT&T dealer for setting up non-US customers as well.  If someone has encountered this, I’d love to hear about it.  This would also negate the need for using an iPad w/3G for setting up the account if you don’t already have one, since you can pop the activated Micro-SIM into your unlocked iPhone 4 and just start using it.

My next blog post will discuss ways to avoid high long distance and roaming charges for voice calls, using your new, cheap, 3G data plan in a foreign country.

*UPDATE July 15, 2011*  After some additional legwork, I have discovered that if you can’t get around the US billing address verification problem when signing up for an AT&T iPad Data Plan, a workaround is to buy a reloadable prepaid Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card in the US.  When using one of these cards online, a billing address verification is not performed and thus you don’t have to spoof the address.  I haven’t found out yet whether this is a valid workaround on AT&T’s network, but US residents have successfully used the same process to sign up for a Canadian iPad Data Plan in Canada, so odds are it will work.

Some time back around 2004, Fido, then an independent company under the Microcell banner, was offering a $50 per month flat-rate data plan.  While this was offered on the Edge/GPRS (2G) network, the slower predecessor to the current 3G and 4G/LTE standards, it provided users with Unlimited data usage throughout the US and Canada.  Regardless of your data usage, you paid the same $50 per month – and this included tethering to a laptop.  When Rogers purchased the dying carcass of Fido in 2005, they eliminated the offering for new customers but allowed existing customers to be grandfathered-in.  They did eliminate the US aspect of the plan eventually (the most valuable feature of the plan to customers) but continued to grandfather existing customers in until 2008 and beyond.  With the advent of the first-generation iPhone in the United States, I was able to obtain one from an AT&T store, hack the carrier SIM-lock, and use it with abandon with my Fido Unlimited plan, at a time that others were getting their first brutal & costly education in using data-hungry smartphones on metered data plans.  The gravy days were over soon though and I abandoned my Unlimited plan in 2008 with the official release of the iPhone 3G in Canada and switched to a domestic 3G plan.

Fast-forward to today.  No incumbent carrier in Canada currently offers an “unlimited” data plan, and to be fair they have become less prevalent in other countries as well, largely due to abuse by overzealous nerds.  While new entrants are nipping at their heels, the big Canadian carriers (Rogers, Telus, Bell) are highly profitable, and much of this is due to charging outrageous data roaming rates.  Just this week Telus finally admitted that data roaming rates were too high and advised that it would be cutting rates by approximately 50%.  Half of a lot is still a lot however.

As in most countries, many of us pay reasonable rates for domestic data.  While there are no truly “unlimited” plans, there are generous data plans that provide a fair price for moderate usage.  I currently have a 6GB data plan through Fido (now a subsidiary of Rogers), offered during the launch of the iPhone 3G, and typically re-offered as a time-limited promotion with each annual iPhone refresh, for which I pay $30 per month.  Even though I would consider myself a power-user and am on my phone constantly – including watching the odd Netflix video – I have a difficult time consuming more than 1GB of data in a month.  Even tethering my laptop and iPad barely makes a dent.  A quick glance of Rogers’ web site reveals that their highest-volume offering is currently 1GB for $30/mo.  Telus and Bell appear to have similar data offerings.  This isn’t as generous as my 6GB plan, but it’s well within the usage band of even a heavy user.  (If you’re spending your allocation downloading BitTorrent files, etc., you’re just plain weird and you aren’t one of the normal ones.)

International roaming is where things get ugly, however.  All carriers deal with data roaming differently.  Rogers and Fido offer blocks of data (10MB, 25MB and 75MB)  you can purchase at a discount, in advance, before you leave the country.  The prepaid rate is between $3 and $5/MB, depending upon the amount of data you pre-purchase.  The trouble with the pre-paid International blocks of data is that they are only valid for 30 days, and you don’t get credit or roll-over for any unused data.

I currently pay Fido an add-on fee of $10 each month for the privilege of paying only $1/MB when roaming in the US.  For a short time last year Rogers offered a $5/mo additional fee that would extend your Canadian data pool to the US, but they abruptly cancelled that.  While my $1/MB is a significant discount over the a-la-carte $3/MB US roaming rate, it’s still excessive given that I pay $30 for 6GB of data in my home country, and that same amount of data usage would cost $6,000 at a “discounted” roaming rate in the US and $18,000 at “regular” rates.  (Where things really get out of control is a comparison with the a-la-carte International roaming rate, where that 6GB of data would be billed out at $180,000)  Logic dictates that the wholesale price our carriers pay to foreign carriers must be dramatically lower than what they charge us.

I travel regularly, primarily to the US but occasionally to Europe or Mexico.  I have always been paranoid about my data usage and have always been very careful about it.  With my $1/MB US roaming rate through Fido, my US data roaming charges were typically in the $60/mo range, which was a lot more than I was paying for my Canadian plan, but still within an affordable sphere.  I often contemplated getting an AT&T domestic plan, but was burdened by the fact that they typically required you to sign a contract, which required you were a US resident with a US address, US bank account, US credit card, etc.  This fact exists in many countries, and is the reason your domestic carrier has you by the proverbial short-and-curlies when you travel.

My day of reckoning finally arrived on a recent trip to Mexico.  I had been in Mexico a couple months earlier and had pre-purchased an International data block that I had barely used.  My hotel had WiFi, and I was typically paranoid about my 3G usage, so I ended up using only a fraction of what I had pre-purchased.  Based on that experience, I decided that upon my return to Mexico a couple months later, I wouldn’t bother with a pre-purchased block.

Failing to purchase a block of data in advance ended up being a huge mistake.  Part of my problem was my own mistake of miscalculating the data rate at $3/MB instead of the actual $30/MB  (3¢ per kilobyte).  Being paranoid, I did limit myself to primarily text-based data transmissions – email with no viewing of attachments, FaceBook status updates, FourSquare check-ins.  I also relied on the Fido iPhone app to keep track of my data usage.  The app stated right on it that data usage counters were typically behind by 4 hours, so when I got up each day I checked the counter to see how much I had consumed the prior day, and used that as the basis for what I could consume subsequent days.  That also proved to be a big mistake, as the counter ended up lagging by a couple days.

Using a miserly 30MB of data ended up costing me about $900.  Upon departure from Mexico, my Fido app counter had logged just shy of 20MB of data, but a couple days after returning from my trip, that had increased to over 30MB.  This just added insult to injury.  Using Fido’s own data to moderate my usage proved faulty.

A day or two after returning from Mexico and well before receiving my bill, I phoned Fido to see if they would allow me to retroactively buy a block of data.  I thought that my history of buying International data blocks in advance combined with 12+ years of loyalty as a customer in an industry constantly battling customer churn would mean something.  I also figured that they might give up some of the ten-fold premium I paid over the prepaid rate, since this was a clear cash grab on their part.  Why else would you discount something by 90% than if it was grossly overpriced in the first place?

I ended up speaking to a CSR who just read me boilerplate.  I was nice, I explained to her that I screwed up but that I was a loyal customer and asked whether I could retroactively purchase an International block of data as I had done in the past prior to leaving the country.  Her cue card told her to regurgitate some gibberish about “how they understand that when you’re excited to go on vacation, you often forget to take care of important things like preparing for foreign data usage…blah blah blah.”  I told her I was aware of all of that, but I was looking for some sympathy given my long tenure as a client.   She refused to transfer me to a supervisor and the best she could come up with after 5 minutes of hold was a $100 loyalty credit.  I could tell that she hears this sob story every day, and they’re clearly in the mode of retaining as much profit as they can, rather than acknowledging the scam and giving some of it up when clients call their bluff.

I admit that everything was within my control and that I could have simply chosen not to use my phone in a region that I knew could cost me a lot, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow.  After so many years as a wildly loyal Fido customer (I even own a company that is a dealer for a competing mobile phone carrier) I then embarked upon a vendetta to limit the amount of revenue I contributed to them, and I will share my research with everyone else upon my next post…

I just finished reading the brand new book Guerrilla Social Media Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson and Shane Gibson (@shanegibson).  I had pre-ordered this book prior to launch and was excited to get my hands on it this week.  Earlier this year in Washington D.C., I first saw Shane Gibson address a professional organization that I belong to, after which I read his first social media marketing book Sociable.  I also received two days of intensive social media marketing training that he hosted recently in San Diego, and I’m about to see him again soon in Texas.  Even though I have traveled twice (soon to be three times) across the continent to see him, ironically he lives in my same city of Vancouver, Canada and yet I was unfamiliar with him previously.

His techniques, after much individual struggle, allowed me to properly focus the social media marketing strategies for my businesses (primarily @boutiquemac) by defining what social media is, what of the myriad of tools are most useful for deploying an effective strategy, and how it is critical for a social media marketing strategy to be tied in to a traditional face-to-face networking strategy.

His new book covers much of the same tools and techniques discussed in his training, and in his prior book Sociable, using the same extremely analytical approach.  This book is a heavy read in the sense that it is composed of a dense amount of useful material.  You will find yourself re-reading this book, and referring to it constantly as a reference guide as you broaden your social media marketing skills and look to deploy new tools.

While his book is a bit lighter on structuring the conversational aspects of social media marketing and developing your persona (insofar as tweeting and blogging are concerned), the book definitely points you in the right direction for how to choose and use the right tools.  There are a number of mediums and many tools – some of them are very obscure – and as with any form of technology, new tools and integration methods pop up daily.  Of all of the books written by the social media mavens, many discuss tools in passing.  Shane however delves very deeply into each individual tool, informs you of its usefulness, and guides you through its deployment.  If social media marketing is like a war, then think of the Guerilla Social Media Marketing as the operations manual for your missiles, tanks, communications infrastructure, and tactics.  To train your individual soldiers you may want to supplant it with some other books, or just send them to Toastmasters.  If you are a human with basic interpersonal communications skills, you’re already most of the way there.  At the end of the day, social media marketing is ultimately about people talking to people (or soldiers shooting at other soldiers, to continue the analogy).

One notable difference between Guerrilla Social Media Marketing and his prior book is coverage of internationally-oriented social networks.  While his prior book Sociable, along those of many other domestic authors, focused on North America-centric tools such as Twitter and Facebook, Shane also introduces tools that are popular or dominant in other specific countries.  If you have a service or product marketed internationally, it’s essential to understand the most efficient method to penetrate social media circles in your target countries.

Guerrilla Social Media Marketing is not only a great tool to help you take your first steps in social media marketing, but it will assist your growth as you “get it”, by guiding you towards other niche areas of the ‘net that may be brimming with prospects for your business.

Image of Guerrilla Social Media Marketing: 100+ Weapons to Grow Your Online Influence, Attract Customers, and Drive Profits