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2,412 Rollover Minutes

My AT&T cell phone plan, for which I pay $55 a month gets me 450 anytime minutes. I never use anywhere close to that. In fact, I'm currently sitting on 2,412 rollover minutes. My phone, a Sony Ericsson W580i, serves me well enough as a phone, and it makes a pretty cool camera (2 megapixel with a groovy four shot burst mode and no shutter lag), but while the menu includes an email option, it won't connect to Gmail, and it doesn't have a qwerty keyboard, so I make no effort to use it for email. For that, I have a completely different device, a Peek9, for which I pay about $18 a month. The Peek is okay for email, but it doesn't have a web browser, and it's made me realize just how many emails that land in my Gmail inbox consist of little more than a url.

For as little as I use my phone (no cell reception here at the ETC, so I have to walk up a hill to make a call), that's way too much money. I've looked at Boost and Virgin Mobile. They have plans that include unlimited text and data and about 300 minutes (still way more than I use - I'm a third of the way through my current billing cycle and I've used 45 of my 450 anytime minutes) starting at $25 a month. Switching to a phone that has a qwerty keyboard and gets me access to my Gmail inbox would allow me to ditch the Peek and save $18 a month.

So why not switch?

Three concerns:

3) I'd have to buy a new phone. This is the least of my concerns as I'd recoup the price of a new phone quite quickly if I were to reduce my monthly bill by $20.

2) I'd lose my accumulated rollover minutes. It would really burn my butt if I switched plans and then had a change of circumstances and needed to use my phone more and started having to buy minutes after having let two thousand bought-and-paid-for rollover minutes evaporate.

1) Coverage. Boost and Virgin work fine in cities, but I don't live in a city, and I use my phone most when I'm traveling. I rarely fly, but I do a LOT of cross country driving. I need my phone to work out in the boonies. AT&T seems to have the most extensive network.

I've thought of adding a second line to my current plan and letting a family member help burn through that stockpile of rollover minutes, but my mom just bought a new pre-paid phone and a ton (for her) of minutes, so the timing is wrong for her. My brother doesn't have or seem to need a cell phone, and he's as broke as I am, so even if he just paid the $10 monthly charge for the extra line, I don't know that I'd be doing him any favors. My AT&T phone has a 410 area code (Baltimore/Eastern Maryland), and so any second line I add to the plan would probably have to be in the same market. With cell phones, this isn't such a big deal, but still, I imagine that most people would want a local area code.

Any thoughts?



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC)
Were we in Africa, you could sell the minutes by transferring them to someone else's account. Sadly, this is not Africa, which is at least civilized.

Grrr. . . .
Jan. 9th, 2011 03:13 am (UTC)
a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)

Please forgive my forwardness in re-casting your question into something you didn't actually ask, but I believe you will end up with a better result by widening the scope of the question about voice communications. Retail cellular choices are not very appealing to low volume users, and US coverage is atrocious, so a little more creativity is needed to achieve a decent value proposition.

I have some suggestions intended to widen your usage options and lower your costs over time by giving you more independence from any given carrier as your circumstances change.

First and most importantly, get yourself a free Google Voice number. You can choose the area code, and domestic calls will be free at least through 2011, and probably longer. Distribute that as your new primary number and set it to forward incoming calls to whatever mobile phone you are using. Once your contact base have all made the transition you can change cell phone providers at will without disrupting your communications.

Second, add the browser plug-in for GTalk voice/video chat, which allows you to link to and make and receive Google Voice calls from your computer. You won't have to climb the hill at home to make calls if you have a more convenient internet connection in or near your living quarters. That also means no more consumption of cellular minutes for calls from home or when you have wifi available on the road.

You should also configure Google Voice to take voicemail messages, which can be delivered as emails as well as called in for. The entire feature set is a nice upgrade from what you can do currently, for example, a custom greeting for incoming calls from your kids' number.

Having demoted your actual cell number to an unpublished utility address, you can switch to a no-contract monthly cell plan which you can maintain or let lapse as your changing usage patterns or budget may dictate.

Carriers. Boost and Virgin are both owned by Sprint and use that network. Sprint's website has a fairly detailled map you can zoom in on to see coverage up close. Boost uses the old Nextel channels and Virgin is on Sprint proper. Sprint and Verizon both use a type of transmission system called CDMA which does not allow for freely moving handsets between their network and anyone else's (even between Sprint and Verizon, though some handsets can be with carrier intervention). CIngular/ATT (unless you have an absolutely ancient handset) uses a transmission system called GSM, which is the dominent system internationally and is used by ATT and TMobile in the US. It is therefore possible to port many handsets between ATT and TMobile at no cost.

If you invest in an UNLOCKED GSM handset, you can move it between ATT and TMobile by swapping out a user accessible memory chip (called a SIM card). If the GSM handset you acquire also contains a "quad band ratio," you can also use SIM chips available in other countries when you travel internationally. (US GSM uses 850/900 & 1900 Mhz channels, other countries use 900 &1800). There are plenty of cheap unlocked GSM phones available on eBay and Craig's List.

Personally, I decided to pay up a little for an Android OS handset, which I use with TMobile, but I am also a light mobile user these days and didn't want to carry the burden of an over-priced data plan. So I live with less functionality while in motion, but can get all the smartphone features when I have WiFi access for the phone. It's a compromise that I works well for me.

Jan. 9th, 2011 03:55 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Hi Milo,

Thank you for taking the time to communicate this very detailed set of suggestions. I will get a Google Voice number and forward the calls to my current cell and start giving that number out as my primary contact in anticipation of the day when I ditch this AT&T service.

...add the browser plug-in for GTalk voice/video chat, which allows you to link to and make and receive Google Voice calls from your computer.

This part is not workable for me. We have satellite internet here at the ETC, and bandwidth-hogging activities like streaming videos, downloading podcasts, or using Skype are restricted to the hours between 1 and 6 am.

I do realize that I'm paying a lot to hold onto those roll-over minutes which I may never use and that this is a psychological anchor.

Thank you again for your ideas. It may take me a while to fully digest them and come to a decision, but I'll get the Google number right away.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:04 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
So, I'm in the process of setting up a Google number, and I'm faced with the question, "Where do I live?"

I don't know. I'm in Tennessee right now, but for how long? My mom and brother live in Berryville, Arkansas and will for the foreseeable future, so maybe I should get a number with that area code. My kids are in Maryland, and my current cell phone has a 410 area code, so maybe I should stick with that for my Google number.

I just don't know.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:24 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Don't sweat it too much. I live in Sweden and when in the US New York, but I picked a Florida Google phone number. Your callers who use cell phone plans don't pay extra for long distance, and even many landlines are flat rate now, especially if provided by the cable TV company.

You can change the Google number later for $10 if it proved to really be a problem.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:33 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Google didn't have any numbers available in Berryville, Arkansas, so I asked for one here in central Tennessee, but I'm stuck on the final step. Google asked me for a phone number where calls to my Google number will be forwarded. I gave my cell phone number. Now Google wants to call that number and have me enter a code via the phone to activate the account. That won't work. My phone doesn't ring here. I'll have to do this some time when I'm in a place that has both internet access and cell coverage.
Jan. 9th, 2011 07:32 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Well that's inconvenient. If you like, we can open a skype text chat where I can give you a number that would ring to me and I could then enter the code for you. After that you would be able to re-associate the account with you cell number.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
I had Google link my Google Talk number to the ETC phone for now and got it activated. I'll see about getting it switched to my cell phone the next time I'm in a place that will let me use the internet and my cell phone at the same time.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:29 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Ouch. Can I assume that there's enough expertise on campus to have looked into setting up a multi KM directional wifi shot to a neighbor on a DSL or cable footprint? The hardware for that sort of thing is breathtakingly cheap these days and is well within the handy DIYer's capability. Or are you folks really that many miles away from even an outpost of civilization?
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:41 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
There is an ETC staff member who lives not much more than a mile away who has DSL, but he doesn't have his modem and router turned on all the time because he doesn't have enough batteries hooked up to his solar array to run it (or anything) continuously.

Edited at 2011-01-09 04:44 am (UTC)
Jan. 9th, 2011 05:14 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Well for what it's worth, you can easily span a mile with directional wifi equipment for about $200-300 in hardware and cable if it can be designed as one shot. The economics of supplying power is another matter, though we're talking about really low wattage devices here. It's actually mostly about antenna design and positioning.

If the satellite connection could be dropped there would even be a return on investment to repay the setup costs. By the way, I saw a lot of this stuff being used to feed internet cafe's all over Africa over 5-10KM mile hops (using cheap towers however), so being third world should be seen as an inducement to build out rather than an impediment.
Jan. 9th, 2011 04:43 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (1st of 2 parts)
Or are you folks really that many miles away from even an outpost of civilization?

We're definitely on the Third World side of the digital divide here.
Jan. 9th, 2011 03:14 am (UTC)
a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (2nd of 2)
As for your hoard of accrued minutes, it's a game theory situation. Like a stash of frequent flier miles which are not high enough to cash in for a free trip, there's an emotional as well as practical dimension to letting them expire vs. spending additional money trying to preserve them. 2500 minutes probably seems like a big store of value given what you are paying for 400 minutes each month, but I have a different take.

I am more familiar with TMobile's rate plans than ATTs, since I'm a city boy and don't share your coverage issues (though I've travelled across the US a couple of times at had to rely on TMobile's highway coverage and roaming agreements, which wasn't so terrible), so take this with an extra grain of salt....but at the margin $50-60 on TMobile will buy you a month of no commitment unlimited minutes should you have a heavy travel schedule temporarily, which you can switch back to a cheap plan when you are done. So, for essentially the price of what you are paying every month to preserve your saved up minutes you can simply buy them a la carte if and when needed by swapping plans and later swapping back.

Given the above, I recommend that you put a pragmatically short deadline on any attempt to spin your accrued minutes off to someone else's benefit. That said, I think there must be people in your community or in your podcast listener base who you could trust enough to risk passing along your account and handset to for a few months and split the value with. Someone who could pay you a month or two in advance as security while they work down the excess over a few months, after which you would either terminate the account of transfer it into their name if they become attached to the phone number. The key is that the invoice continue to come to you until the account is closed or transferred so you can monitor the usage and make sure the payments are being made.

30 years ago when alternative (landline) long distance service was just becoming available I started a little cottage industry arbitraging the structure of the Sprint rate plan at that time into an early sort of Friends and Family service. It was recklessly dangerous, in that to net about $500/month in profit, I took on the full payment credit risk in my own name for about 100 users all around the country, who were spending an aggregate of $3500-5000. Some were my direct friends and family and some were friends of theirs. At that sort of very personal scale, it worked out just fine, and I made a lot of new friends.

Actually, thinking along those lines, the ideal situation for you would be to get yourself hosted on the family plan of one of your more well-off city-based listeners. Someone who already buys a lot of minutes because of the kind of life they lead, so that your true marginal cost on their account would be only $10/month (+~$2 tax), which you could just send them or they could treat as recurring podcast support. I think it likely there are many in your audience who would trust you to make the $12 payment and mostly lean on the free night/weekend minutes which tend to come with those larger minute plans. If you were going to have a temporary need for more than 100-200 of their plan minutes, and it's not certain they have enough excess to carry you, you could have a separate handset (or just insert another SIM chip) which you activate directly with a carier for that purpose in your own name. Google Voice would make it all seamless to your callers, and you'd be saving over $500/year, even without any subsidy by your host.
Jan. 9th, 2011 07:18 am (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (2nd of 2)
By the way. I checked the link you supplied in your original post and you have a pretty good quad band GSM handset, so if it is already unlocked you are all set for being able to use it with ATT and TMobile (or Rogers in Canada, etc.) If it is locked to ATTs network, you can fight with customer service to provide you with the network unlock code, which the FCC has ruled you are entitled to if you have completed the contract which allowed ATT to offer you a subsidized price for the handset. I think it is best practice to get your phone unlocked even if you stay with ATT. It's like keeping your axe sharpened.

Since you might be limited to ATT for coverage reasons, I checked out ATTs website for rate plans. They actually have two interesting options which might suit you in their pre-paid section. In one case there is no monthly charge, just 10 cents a minute when you make or receive calls. If you are averaging less than 200 minutes a month you'll cut your cost to $20/month, which is a nice savings from your present expense level.

The other plan was even more appealing in a quirky sort of way. It's $2/Day for unlimited calls, but zero on days when you don't use your phone. If it is practical for you to schedule phone usage (when you're not travelling) to say Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturdays you would end up spending something like $25/month. With Google voice taking your voice messages and being able to retrieve them via email, you wouldn't have to become completely voice deaf on the other days. It would be more about scheduling your return calls.

The nice thing about this 2nd plan is that if you have temporary business/travel which requires more, and less flexible usage, the cost scales in a linear and controlled fashion to a maximum of $60-62/month for totally unlimited calling every day.

To my mind, this puts the final nail in the coffin any benefits of preserving of your accrued rollover minutes. Essentially, you have access to unlimited minutes for $60/mo (or less) anytime you need it, so you are just keeping yourself from collecting the available savings by preserving your current plan.

Regarding your Peek9 service, I looked them up (hadn't heard of it before). According to Wikipedia, Peek uses TMobile's network, so if your coverage has been acceptable, it means you can probably add TMobile to your list of carriers to consider. You might want to do some further testing using the Peek with that in mind.

TMobile has absolutely killer family plans for up to 5 phones. If the network coverage works for you, you should have a look and try to come up with a way to share a plan with some friends or family. I think they are even waiving the monthly charge for phones 3, 4 & 5 through 2011. And the best deals are month to month (in exchange for no subsidy on the handset prices - which you should buy used and elsewhere for less).

OK. I'm done for now. I didn't indent to get so obsessed.

If you want to talk more about any of this, including the internet wifi shot to the neighbor, let me know. I'm happy to support your efforts. The podcasts have been great. I actually came to this blog looking for the playlist for the music show, which was also wonderful. When I read that you were having phone issues...well that's been my home turf since I was a kid.

Jan. 9th, 2011 04:51 pm (UTC)
Re: a broader approach to the problem ... with a lot of details (2nd of 2)
...you have a pretty good quad band GSM handset, so if it is already unlocked you are all set...

How can I tell if it's unlocked?

If it is locked to ATTs network, you can fight with customer service to provide you with the network unlock code, which the FCC has ruled you are entitled to if you have completed the contract which allowed ATT to offer you a subsidized price for the handset.

I'm pretty sure I have completed my contract for the phone upgrade. You make it sound like AT&T won't want to give up the unlock code. Is there anything in particular that I can say to them to put the fear of God in them? Once I've got the code, what do I do with it? How do I use it to unlock the phone?

I like the $2 a day plan. The Peek is neat in that it allows me to send and receive both email and phone text messages. The downside is that they don't always arrive in a timely manner. Sometimes incoming messages languish in limbo for 24 hours or more before they show up on my Peek. I was thinking about ditching it, but if I'm demoting the cell phone to 2 days a week, I might want to keep the Peek for the unlimited text messaging.

Peek uses TMobile's network, so if your coverage has been acceptable...

T-Mobile seems to be better than AT&T here. I can sometimes get a couple of bars of signal on my Peek in the ETC driveway, whereas I have to climb to the top of the hill to get any signal on my AT&T phone.

Thank you for you help. I think it's actually going to save me quite a bit of money.
Jan. 9th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
Unlocking my handset
So, here's a company that offers to send me an unlock code for my phone for $30. You say that AT&T is required by law to give me the code for free?

Jan. 10th, 2011 04:01 am (UTC)
Re: Unlocking my handset
If your phone is already unlocked you can borrow a TMobile SIM chip from someone and test it. The phone will power up normally. If it's locked it will give you an error message about the SIM chip.

As far what to say to ATT if they resist an outright request, if you don't mind borrowing someone else's story as your own, you can try saying that you will be traveling internationally and will need to be able to use local carrier SIM chips in your handset, that you were always able to get your GSM phones unlocked in the past as a TMobile customer, and that the ability to use GSM phones with foreign SIM chips when overseas is why you chose ATT rather than Verizon when you moved to a place with poor TMobile network coverage.

If you still get resistance I would let the rep go and call in again. You may just need to reach a more cooperative person.

TMobile's policy is to give the code out on request to anyone who's account is something like 3 months old, even before the FCC ruling. ATT used to resist, but they may have come into compliance more recently.

It should not be necessary to resort to paying a 3rd party service for access to your phone.

It's interesting that you may have better TMobile coverage than ATT in your remote spot. If you decide to switch to TMobile at some point you may want to ask them if they can get your ATT phone unlocked to take one of their chips. In other words, instead of signing up on their website, talk to someone on their 800 number or better still stop into a storefront.

I'm glad you think you'll be saving some money on this advice. Contributions in kind are my favorite. Thanks again for the great work you've been doing and your example of questful living in trying circumstances. It's been more valuable to me than you can know.

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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