Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Mobile Phone Planning

“The horror” is the famous last line from Apocalypse Now. It is also an exact description of my feelings upon hearing how much money most of my colleagues spend on their mobile phone plans. I therefore thought I’d share my own approach, with its very low costs, so that you can reflect whether you can cut your mobile bills, too.
Before we start, a bit of a disclaimer. While you may think it is the case, I do not consider the post that follows to be some sort of a “tight arse’s guide”; I do not hold myself back when it comes to using my smartphone. It’s just that I happen to use it in ways that do not cost me much money. If you think that’s what being a tight arse means, good on you; I think that’s what being smart means, because I can go and spend my money on things I really like as opposed to making rich and often scummy companies richer.

When you pay for mobile phone services nowadays, you are paying for the following:
  1. Your smartphone,
  2. Internet access,
  3. Phone calls, and
  4. Messages (aka SMSs).
Let’s examine my approach to each of the above.

I will start with Internet access.
For my iPhone, I buy a 10GB data pack of Optus 4G from Amaysim at $100 that’s valid for a year. I set my phone up to perform all backups and iCloud interactions through wifi only, and I do all my system and application updates over wifi too. Acting this way does not bother me in the least; particularly for larger downloads, the relatively unreliable nature of mobile connections can be a major pain. This 10GB actually lasts me a year, but I will concede that if you’re on YouTube a lot or if you stream lots of music that may not be the case. If that is more of an accurate description of you, have a look at buying a 2.5GB data pack a month from Amaysim at the cost of $20 instead.
For my iPad, I buy a 1GB data pack of Optus 4G from Globalgig at $10 a month. As with my iPhone, I set the iPad to do the heavy lifting over wifi. More to the point, the slight extra cost of Globalgig gives me two things Amaysim does not: Globalgig allows tethering from an iPad, which Amaysim doesn’t (thus allowing the iPad, with its strong battery, to act as a pretty decent wifi hotspot); and Globalgig’s SIM can be used for global roaming at truly reasonable costs.
Globalgig does have its drawbacks. First and foremost, it offers data alone; you do not get a phone number with Globalgig (but that’s perfectly fine for an iPad). Second, for reasons defying sanity, Optus will not let Australian users set the Globalgig APN on iPhones, thus attempting to prevent users from using their data in Australia. That’s incredibly stupid, though, as there are various ways to bypass this limitation (the easiest of which is to simply visit this website, which will get you an APN profile installed on your iPhone). Lastly, Globalgig only has monthly data packs, which means there is [almost] always some unused allowance in there that gets wasted.
Whether you choose to use Amaysim of Globalgig, note my phone bills start at $10 a month or below. The only disclaimer I will add here is that if the extra coverage offered by Telstra is important to you (say, if you live in rural Australia) then you will have to pay substantially more.

Let’s move to making phone calls.
The reality is, I do not make a lot of phone calls. However, the calls to landlines and mobile phone numbers that I do make are done over Skype.
With Skype Premium, I am able to buy 5 hours a month of phone calls to landlines and mobile phones in all the countries I care to call at about $3. Since Skype cards are often available at supermarkets under 50% discounts, I am able to make all the phone calls I want to make in a year at around $15, plus the negligible consumption of data that comes with that. Yes, a year’s worth of phone calls for $15.
There are disadvantages, of course. Call quality over Skype can be less than brilliant; then again, this is the case with all mobile phone calls (but probably less so with conventional ones). Skype does not support 13 or 1800 numbers, at least not without extra fees. Last, but not least, we now know that Microsoft has handed the NSA the encryption keys to Skype, which pretty much means our friends at the NSA/GCHQ/your local spy agency are listening in to our calls. Does that bother me? Sure it does! However, if you are under the illusion your normal mobile or landline calls are not tapped by the NSA & Co then, by all means, do enjoy your life at Dreamland.
Being an iPhone user, the bulk of my calls are actually made over Facetime to other Apple users. Like Skype, Facetime relies on the Internet to communicate the message. Apple claims Facetime to be secure, but I severely doubt this PRISM partner is telling us the whole truth. What I will say about Facetime is that its call quality is far superior to Skype’s or, for that matter, conventional phone calls (be it landline or mobile).
Last, but not least: If you do fancy having a truly private conversation – that is, having a chat without the participation of your friends from the NSA – then I’d recommend using Signal (or its Android counterpart, RedPhone) to make the call. Unless you were handpicked by the NSA for personal targeting, a privilege probably not reserved for common people like us, then those Signal calls you’d be making will be the first truly private mobile phone calls you have made in decades. As Edward Snowden told us, encryption works!

The topic of Signal brings me to the last criteria, messaging.
It is true that, from time to time, I do need to send an SMS to someone. Someone like my dentist, sending me an ultimatum to “reply with a Y or your appointment is cancelled”. But those SMSs cost me 12c a pop through Amaysim.
The rest of the time I use either iMessage, Telegram or Signal. Lately it’s been Signal for 95% of the time, being the most secure messaging platform for both Android and iOS. As with VOIP phone calls, the cost in data is negligible.
SMSs are for people stuck in the 20th century who want their messages to be read by the NSA, like to be limited for space, and prefer to pay tons for the privilege of sending poor quality photos.

So there you have it: the confessions of a person using an iPhone for around $12 a month and an iPad for $10, and using them a lot. I contest you to point me towards something better; I would actually appreciate it if you were to do so.
I do admit to ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the cost of the smartphone itself. I buy mine outright, but many – most – people are driven to plans simply because they cannot afford the outright cost of a phone. Especially for Apple users, and especially given the poor Aussie dollar at the moment, I cannot blame them; I’m speaking here from a position of privilege. I would, however, urge you to compare the cost of your smartphone plan to mine over the course of the smartphone’s life in order to help convince you regarding the significant merits of choosing my approach. You’d be hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, richer at the end; and if that is the case, then perhaps the sacrifice of buying a phone outright is worthwhile?
I’ll finish with a tip on how to save a third of the cost of your smartphone: do not replace it every two years; wait another year to make it last three. No harm will come to you in the process.

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