Readers of this blog will remember that last year I went to the Toronto Film Festival for three days and returned home to a $1723 bill from AT&T. I wrote a blog post about it that went viral on the web and reached the attention of the FCC and finally a phone call from the office of the CEO of AT&T, Randall L. Stephenson, where I received 50% off of my bill.
Needless to say, I learned a lot through the experience, so I would like to pass on what I learned this year, particularly to my friends who are headed up Toronto. Here are a number of things you can do to keep your data costs down. All this information is only for AT&T and only for Canada. If you have a different carrier or are going to a different country, you need to check it out on the site, as different rates may apply.
Telephone: For Canada, this is a no-brainer and caused me no problems last year. AT&T offers a “Nation With Canada plan,” which you can find here. (You have to put in your zip code to find out what the rates are for you.) For my zip code, there are numerous deals, but for example you can get 900 minutes plus 1000 Nights and Weekends for $79.99. Remember that this is charged on top of what you normally pay for your monthly bill, so it might cost from practically nothing to an extra $10 or $20 to get an upgrade. But the data bill is still a very expensive $2 a MB on this plan, and data usage is what got me the $1723 bill last year.
If you call an operator, they will probably try to steer you to an “AT&T Traveler Package” This only reduces the rate per minute to fifty-nine cents as opposed to the flat rate above. It costs six bucks as opposed to the twenty or thirty the above plan will run you. But oh boy, will it cost you on the minutes…
With certain plans there is something called “A-List” which allows you to call a few people for free. Put your loved ones back home and the clients you will be calling the most into your A-List and all those calls will be free.
If you don’t have data roaming on, you won’t get any international data charges. If you’re on holiday and don’t need to be reached all the time—you’re all set. It is the default setting, but definitely go to Settings/General/Network and make sure it’s off. But this post is directed towards people who are working and need to be able to receive and send email all day long, regardless of whether they are near wi-fi or not.
Take a look at this page. It helps you calculate how many megabytes you use when you do various things when you use your phone overseas. I’m actually not sure what it costs per MB in Canada without a plan, but I bet it isn’t low. In some countries AT&T charges $20 a MB, or $40 to watch one YouTube video.
So I recommend getting a plan.
Last year, the best plan that AT&T offered was $199.99/month for 200 MB. After that it was $5 a MB. This year, I am happy to report that their best plan is 800 MB plan for $199.99. There are of course cheaper plans, including 275 MB for $99.99. Even better news is that overages go for $10/10 MB. This is one-fifth of what overages cost last year. So, I think that AT&T deserves a lot of praise for listening to their customers, as no doubt they are losing a lot of money. I also think that the FCC deserves credit for calling attention to this issue. You can find these plans here.
VERY IMPORTANT: In order to get these top rates on phone and data you need to sign on for the ENTIRE MONTH. If you go on the 800 MB plan for three days, you’ll get one-tenth of 30 days worth pro-rated, or around 80 MB. The good news is that the operator will happily backdate your plan to the beginning of the month.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO
If you don’t buy a data plan, or even if you do, there are any number of things you can do to keep you data bill down.
Use wireless as much as you can. You don’t pay any data fees for wireless. If you have wireless where you will be staying and wireless where you will be working, you shouldn’t have much of a data bill. When you have a lot of emails to write, you can stop in at Starbucks or at the many festival venues that offer wireless service.
Make sure that your hotel has wireless internet service in the rooms. This was my undoing last year, as my hotel only had wired internet. Wired internet is getting to be pretty common in hotesl, so make sure to ask. If you’re going to be working somewhere all day, then you need to have wireless service there too.
Remember that spam and newsletters are data. If you receive a lot of newsletters and get a lot of spam you can get charged mucho money if you’re not on a plan. But there are ways to reduce the amount of that stuff you get. I use Gmail. If data is turned off on my phone (for example, if I’m sleeping), I can go to Gmail on my computer and delete everything I don’t want, particularly the spam. Then when I turn on the phone, nothing comes in.
Another thing you can do is to unsubscribe to all the newsletters you don’t want. FYI, it is US law that there should be an “unsubscribe” button that you can easily find on an email. One or two clicks at most. If it doesn’t stop right then—they are breaking the law. Warning: be very careful that you only unsubscribe from a newsletter that’s real. It could be a phony, and when you push “unsubscribe” you may be alerting a spammer that you are a real person.
Another good thing to do when you shop online is give them a second email address, one you don’t check as much.
Turn your smart phone into a dumb phone. The iPhone is a wonderful thing but it sucks data every which way. When you click onto many of your games and other apps it automatically goes onto the internet. Go into settings/location services and turn as much of this stuff off as you can. There are so many things you can do with cloud computing on your iPhone, like Drop Box and Google apps. Don’t do them over 3G.
Want to post a picture to Facebook? Sending it via 3G will cost you. Take the picture and go somewhere there is wireless.
There are apps you can get that will give you a Toronto Map that you can keep on your phone so you won’t have to access the internet to look at it. If you have an iPad they are particularly helpful . I like the Smart Maps one, because it allows you to put little stick pins in the map to mark where the Toronto venues, restaurants and your hotel are. You can also use any app that reads PDFs. My favorite is GoodReader, because you can draw and type on it. Just scan a good Toronto map and you’re good to go.
Streaming video is incredibly expensive. I don’t recommend you ever do it over 3G. Personally, I don’t even want to hit the YouTube button by accident. I’m going to go to Settings/ General/Restrictions and turn YouTube off. You can turn other stuff off there, like iTunes or even Safari.
Attachments are expensive. As a publicist I send out a lot of attachments from my computer. Because of a quirk of Gmail, copies of them turn up on my iPhone and I have to pay for them as phone data. This year I will send my attachments out from a different email like Yahoo and this shouldn’t be a problem. I’m going to make a note on my Yahoo address so people will remember to respond to my usual Gmail one.
Don’t trust the AT&T app that tells you how much data you’re using. This page is a lie if you are roaming, as the woman from the CEO’s page readily admitted. As it takes two monhs for them to get all the information from the Canadian carrier about your international billing, it’s impossible for them to tell you the data use at any given moment when you are traveling. Before you get on the plane, go to Settings/General/Usage, and before you leave, push “reset statistics.” Then you will always know how much data you are sending and receiving. This may notmatch up exactly with what you will eventually get charged, but it will at least give you some idea of your usage.
I’m signed up for the 800 MB plan, but I know it will be overkill because I am doing so many things that I bet I’ll hardly use any data at all. But last year was scary, and I’d rather better safe than sorry. It wasn’t just the money, it was all the hassling over the phone.
I hope this is helpful, and if it isn’t please don’t sue me. Better deals may exist. One thing I discovered last year with AT&T is that different operators told me different things each time I called before I went to Canada. I recorded all my conversations with operators before I left for Toronto last year, but it didn’t matter, as being given wrong information was no defense. Even when the woman in the AT&T CEO’s office agreed with me that the information I was given was wrong (because that was the information they were still giving to everybody) it didn’t matter. So this year, I’ve decided if it isn’t on the website, I don’t care what I hear on the phone.