• Using an iPhone in America is not easy
  • Using an iPhone in America is not easy
    Written by battye
    Sun Jan 25, 2009 3:43 pm

    You would think that using an iPhone in the USA would be the easiest of tasks. After all, the USA is the most advanced Western nation in the world and the iPhone is a creation of an American company; Apple. Unfortunately, using an iPhone in the states is not the easiest of tasks.

    Last year I spent some time in New York, a wonderful city. A city where you can do anything and everything (my highlight being a visit to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where my beloved "30 Rock" is set, and a subsequent trip up to "The Top of The Rock"). Well, almost everything... I couldn't use my iPhone in the way I wanted to.

    As far as I know, Australia is one of the few countries where unlocking your iPhone can be quite an easy thing to do. Certainly in the USA there is no simple way to unlock from AT&T. My local carrier Optus will unlock iPhone's for free if you are on a contract - which most people are. Granted, unlocking the phone doesn't free you from contractual obligations, you still have to pay your monthly fee and phone costs, but other phone networks (with far less iPhone users, ironically) charge in excess of $100 for the same privilege that Optus provides for free.

    Before my trip I saw to it that the iPhone was unlocked, allowing me to use any sim card in the phone - my plan was to buy a prepaid sim in the states that I could use without racking up large international roaming bills and extra data usage.

    In New York I went to stores of the two largest phone networks, AT&T and T-Mobile.

    AT&T were very good, the person in the store went to a lot of trouble for me. When I told them my iPhone 3G was unlocked there was a lot of confusion though, as you don't see many unlocked iPhone 3G's in America I suppose. Regardless she set up a "fake" GoPhone account and tested the sim in the phone. The SMS/Phone functionality worked fine, I even have the SMS still to prove it:


    Unfortunately the data did not work, and email/web usage was half of the reason I wanted a prepaid sim card in the first place. So back in went my Optus 3G sim card and next stop was the T-Mobile store.

    While AT&T went above and beyond, T-Mobile were disappointing. In the lead-up to the trip I had emailed the company many, many times only to be referred to different people and then receiving non-specific answers. Needless to say the in-store experience was not much better. After waiting 10 minutes for any service, they simply said it was impossible to use data on a prepaid sim card on their network.

    Refusing to give up, I decided to ask the experts. And by experts that can only mean one thing; a trip to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store! I had never been to one before (there are only 3 in Australia compared to the 202 in the US), so it was something I was looking forward to and would have done anyway. I went to the SoHo store, which as far as I know is something of a flagship store because it has won awards. I didn't have an appointment with a Genius (although I was offered one! But, I didn't have any other problems.) but the guy that carries the Macbook Air around was able to confirm to me once and for all that you can't use data on a prepaid sim card in the USA. He said it was best to use Wi-Fi and suggested I used Starbucks or the many unsecured Wi-Fi's around the city.

    So unfortunately I wasn't able to get a prepaid sim with data (a note to America, you are years behind Australia in this department! On arrival back in Australia, the first poster I saw was for Vodafone pre-paid packages) and as a result I did end up with a larger than normal bill. Although the Genius Bar were right about Wi-Fi, it was there is you were prepared to look for it.

    Starbucks provide a very good service, although it was hard to sign up for to a certain extent. You must buy a Starbucks card from the front counter, they come as low as $5 (so I went for that) and scratch out the area on the back to get your ID number. This is very easy, but the next step is where it got complicated I found - although it might be easier with a laptop. The AT&T welcome page (due to the Starbucks/AT&T affiliation, this page is the default when I accessed their Wi-Fi) was quite hard to navigate. There was no information that I could find explaining how to enter your ID and begin browsing. It wasn't until I typed in the Starbucks website address from a hunch that I was able to get the process started.

    The page asks you to fill out your details, etc, etc along with your ID number. Fair enough, but then they email you a confirmation link which you have to click before you can begin browsing. Fundamental flaw, if right now I was able to access the internet to browse my emails I probably wouldn't be trying to use Starbucks Wi-Fi! The internet Gods must have been looking down on me at the time, because out of nowhere a new Wi-Fi network appeared (presumably an unsecured Wi-Fi from an apartment block nearby)... so I quickly connected to it, accessed the emails, clicked the link and started to use the Starbucks Wi-Fi.

    The Starbucks Wi-Fi is pretty fast, very accessible (a Starbucks can be found every couple of blocks, I could see one from the hotel room window) and for as low as $5 very affordable. Even though on their website it says you can only use Starbucks Wi-Fi at a maximum of 1 store per day, I remember one day where I was able to access it from a 2nd location, so it may also depend on your luck.

    As far as unsecured Wi-Fi's go, they are also everywhere. They were handy to use if I needed to quickly check my emails or do a quick search on Google Maps, but not 100% reliable. Because most of them, I assume, are residential networks several floors off the street the signal is quite weak and intermittent.

    Of course, every Apple Store offers free and unlimited Wi-Fi as well. So if all else fails, there is normally an Apple Store somewhere nearby. I used their networks quite a few times, although besides the SoHo store beware that chairs are hard to come by!

    The moral of the story, you can't use data on a prepaid sim card in the USA. Although not "everywhere" like the cellular network, which is a shame for sending emails on the go or Google Maps for out-of-towners, the availability of Wi-Fi is a more than suitable backup option.
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