Nov 9, 2011

freedom, and how you can achieve it

instructions on how to buy an inexpensive but decently built and swiftly unlockable smartphone and switch to a low-cost pay-as-you-go cellphone service.

you, like me, could soon be free of the iphone's tyranny and AT&T's colossal rip-off cellular service (so bad it would be laughable if it weren't also tear-inducingly frustrating, inconvenient, and expensive).

update: t-mobile unlocked the phone after 60 days of active service.
update: grooveip works fine. it is a bit buggy but i use voice sufficiently infrequently that it doesn't matter to me. (last month, my total talk time was 33 minutes using both the t-mobile network and grooveip). jacob h-a has been fooling around with a combo of sipdroid and that he says is working out well for him. no doubt he'll send an update once he's figured it out completely.

my new t-mobile unlimited 4G data and text plan (with 100 voice minutes a month) costs $30 (prepaid, no contract). i use it with the admittedly absurdly named samsung exhibit ii 4g: a $200 phone (without contract) that isn't perfect but, in the many ways detailed below, is probably the best compromise handset to come onto the US market in the last 12 months. the current setup is an exhibit ii 4g, t-mobile's new $30/month prepaid unlimited data plan (approx $53/month less than my current data plan with AT&T), my previous AT&T number ported to google voice and forwarded to the new t-mobile number, and my previous google voice number retained as a second number.

  1. i will save about $53/month ($1250 over 2 years) in service costs compared to renewing my 2-year AT&T contract. my total startup cost was $252.37, my monthly payments will be no more than $30. 
  2. i don't have to tell everyone and their dog what my new number is—they call the old numbers, my new phone rings. all my voicemails and text messages can go to email if i desire it. 
  3. i can travel easily with my phone without extortionate roaming fees. 
  4. once i unlock the phone, i can discontinue service at any time and resume it with t-mobile or any other provider with almost no disruption in how people call me or send me text messages.
this is better than the iphone on AT&T in every possible way relevant to me.  

there is much conflicting information on the interwebs about setting up this brand new wal-mart t-mobile plan. there are hundreds of phones, most of which suck for one or more reasons (on which, see below). consequently, setting up the phone and related services took 4 hours of research instead of 15 minutes. finding the phone took weeks of research.

we stand upon the shoulders of those who go before us (or, more precisely, those who stand underneath us). below, i provide excruciatingly precise detail on what to buy, where to buy it, and how to do everything you need to do to replicate my current situation of cellular blissall in the interest of human progress and freedom from digital tyrannies. and because i care about you.

first, the caveats. this scheme is ideal only if you
  1. use data intensively and send text messages all the time
  2. barely use voice calling
  3. are off contract with your current cell service provider
  4. have a google voice account
  5. don't really need domestic data roaming
if you wish to proceed, do the following in order (full disclosure: some of the links below will send me referral dollars if you buy through them.):
  1. a final caveat: you may face a termination fee if you port your phone while your contract is still in force. google voice's porting process may get fubar-ed (horror stories abound). in the grand scheme, these are minor annoyances for which i claim no responsibility.
  2. get a phone: purchase an off-contract prepaid-service t-mobile samsung exhibit ii 4g at wal-mart or online (see below for why it is the best compromise phone available today). amazon has the cheapest handsets and fastest fulfilment too. if you want to be nice to me, buy it through this link. important note: you cannot purchase your phone or activate it in a t-mobile physical store location if you want the $30 unlimited data plan described above. while the plan is marketed through wal-mart, it appears to be one of the t-mobile monthly4G plans and is available on any newly activated monthly4G SIM card, as long as activation happens on
  3. switch the phone on: when your phone arrives, insert the SIM and battery and begin to charge the phone. 
  4. activate cell service with t-mobile: have the ugly pink box handy and go to t-mobile's prepaid service activation page. enter the activation code (on a card inside the box) and the IMEI and SIM serial number (both listed on a sticker on the box), choose the $30/month prepaid plan with unlimited data, and complete your activation process but skip step 5 (funding your account). write down the new phone number which t-mobile assigns to you.
  5. fund your account: buy your account minutes from callingmart instead, which often has standard discounts on t-mobile prepaid service, in addition to a host of coupons (like these). again, if you want to be nice to me, please use this link to buy your minutes from callingmart.
  6. forward google voice to your new t-mobile number: go to this page and click on the link to "add a new phone"
  7. port your current cellphone number to google voice: if you are with AT&T, find your AT&T account number and PIN number ready, as well as the exact address and telephone number AT&T has on file for you (you should sign into your account at AT&T to check all this). then, go to this page, click on the link to port or change your number, and follow the quite clear instructions. if, despite entering the exactly correct account number and other details, the google voice workflow tells you to "Please fill out all of the required fields," be persistent and check for extra spaces and that you have the correct case. once you get to google checkout, pay the $20 port fee and confirm the port request. (you will note that there is no field to enter your AT&T PIN.)
  8. wait for the porting error message and fix it: eventually, google voice will send you an email titled "Oops! Issue with your Google Voice Number Porting Request." click on the link in the email and enter your AT&T PIN number. 
  9. make your current google voice permanent: when the port is completed, you'll get an email titled "Google Voice Number Porting is Complete!" rejoice, then go to google voice again, click on the link to "make permanent," follow instructions and pay another $20.
  10. unlock your phone: if you purchased your phone for full price, you can request that it be unlocked immediately. full details here.
  11. bask.  
why, you ask, would i go through all this hassle? 

about 6 months ago, i began looking for a new cellphone. my AT&T iphone 3GS was junk after almost two years of use. to be fair, it was a revelatory phone when i first got it and it saved my life once, but five things chafed more and more as time went on:
  1. it's locked to AT&T forever. i took a second phone with me whenever i was out of the country, so i would not be subject to AT&T's ludicrous roaming prices.*
  2. the silent-mode toggle switch is broken, but works unpredictably. this is always awkward in meetings.
  3. there is no way to shut off the shutter sound on the iphone camera without resorting to jailbreaking and doing other silly workarounds.*
  4. the battery life seriously blows.
  5. dropped calls all the time. all. the. time.
  6. i regularly used a small fraction of the hundreds of minutes i paid for on even the least expensive AT&T iphone plan.
every alternative phone i looked at was deficient on at least one of the following dimensions:
  1. screen too big = device is enormous (bigger than iphone)
  2. screen too crappy
  3. looks like a sex aid
  4. way too expensive (>$200)
  5. CDMA-only 
  6. not 4G-compatible in the US
  7. not world GSM-compatible
  8. processor slower than molasses
  9. obnoxious colour
  10. no front-facing camera
  11. not warrantied in the US
  12. battery cannot be replaced by user
  13. lousy battery life
  14. soon-to-be obsolete operating system
  15. locked to one carrier
this samsung handset is the only one i have found that has none of these deficiencies. it has a screen of modest but acceptable size and quality, a decent camera and front-facing camera, a modest but acceptable processor, runs gingerbread. all this is contained in a chassis the size of an iphone. it accepts regular-sized SIM cards and can be used worldwide with prepaid voice/data/text services from other service providers. intended as the mid-market member of the galaxy family, it is not ridiculously expensive. see reviews here and here, and full specifications here.

* yes, i jailbroke it but then that broke voice reception. and i was on a baseband that didn't have an easy unlock strategy. anyway.
** the W, in case you are wondering, stands for Wonder.


Josh Chan said...

Have you considered installing GrooVe IP to make VOiP calls through the 4G connection. I'm thinking of doing exactly what you outline above with the addition of GrooVe IP.

Josh Chan said...

Sorry for the second post, but I had a quick question. Did you purchase your Samsung Exhibit II 4G through I ask because on the T-Mobile page describing the $30/month plan ( it says "New activations only. Available exclusively in-store at Walmart, on, and Just wanted to check if you were able to activate the plan using an Amazon-bought phone. Thanks for your time.

vaughn tan said...

grooveip is the next step. i'm working on unlocking the phone now (through t-mobile's unlock request system).

re: your other question -- i bought the phone on but amazon would have been marginally cheaper and much faster (walmart took 8 days for me). the plan is available for all new monthly4G activations done through (or in walmart stores; i couldn't find the activation website). this means you can activate a prepaid plan on for a monthly4G cellphone+SIM purchased on amazon and still use the $30 unlimited data plan. one of the reviewers reports that he was able to do this.

if you're concerned, just buy it on if you do take the risk and buy it on amazon, let me know what happens.