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Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

drewbles

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Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Seeing as there has been a fair few people recently asking about different options for pre-paid Voice and Data services in the USA, I thought i'd take it upon myself to offer some viable options for travellers, both frequent and in-frequent, based on my time in the industry :)

Q. I'm going to the USA. Will my existing handset work there?

A. Depending on your model, the answer is most likely yes. Most modern phones (less than 5 years old) are at minimum tri-band, and in most cases, quad-band GSM phones. This means your phone should operate on 850/900/1800/1900mHz "2G" Networks. To check if your phone will work in the USA, the best site to visit is GSMArena.com - GSM phone reviews, news, opinions, votes, manuals and more... . Put your phone model into the top right search box, click on the right handset and look at "2G Network" at the top. This will list what frequencies your phone supports. As a general rule, most US networks use 850mHz and1900mHz for their GSM 2G networks, so if your phone has support for one or both of these, you should be right. Note that some carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile) sometimes only support one of the frequencies, depending on the area. It's not unusual to only see 1900mHz and no 850mHz in some areas.

If you have a 3G handset, it's almost a given you will have quad-band GSM, but check with the above website still to verify. Some networks will let you connect to their 3G network, others won't. It's best if you have a 3G handset with quad-band GSM, to maximise your global roaming capabilities if you travel to other countries apart from the USA.

Q. Great. My handset isn't going to work. How do I get a cheap phone to use whilst there?

A. Lots of options here. You can usually procure one online cheaply, just confirm it's quad-band GSM and you should be right to go. Try eBay, or many of the companies offering pre-paid services in the USA have phones they can sell you for a reasonable amount (sub $100 in most cases).

Q. OK. I have my phone arranged. What options do I have for pre-paid US Voice Calls?

A. This is where it can get tricky. There is a plethora of Global Pre-Paid SIM Card providers out there, all offering competitive rates and differing types of plans/service features that people may or may not find useful. One website that's dedicated to discussing pre-paid SIM cards for travellers is http://www.prepaidgsm.net . This site has a lot of people who test and trial all the products off companies who offer US and Global pre-paid SIM card solutions. It's probably a good idea to login there, and have a browse. The people there are usually very helpful and will be able to advise you of your options.

As pre-paid is a relatively new concept in the USA, most of the big carriers (AT&T/T-Mobile/Verizon/Sprint) are still playing catch-up. There have been several "MVNO"'s or virtual-telcos that have sprung up, offering their own branded service whilst still operating on one of the major networks (AT&T/T-Mobile/Verizon/Sprint). They also have different product offerings, and you need to investigate them carefully. Verizon and Sprint do not operate on GSM, rather they operate on CDMA and to a lesser extent, the new-to-the-block 4G standard known as LTE. It's probably best to stick with a carrier that does GSM to maximise your coverage and compatibility (so using an MVNO that offers either AT&T or T-Mobile, or sometimes even both).

You should also investigate each carriers roaming to Canada and Mexico thoroughly if you plan on visiting either or both of these places whilst in North America. Some products such as AT&T's pre-paid GO Phone offering, will not work in these areas.

Q. Great. I've found a carrier that does what I want and offers me suitable rates. Now what?

A. In most cases, it's probably best to get a SIM card sent to you before you depart. That way you can read up it, how it works, and what other benefits/problems it may incur for you. Some products will use what is known as 'call back' where you dial a number, press send on your handset, and wait for a call back to you. You answer the phone, and you get connected to another person. Other carriers offer normal calling without any of that. Then there are some that offer what is known as a Dual SIM card. This offers you the benefit of effectively two services on one SIM card. You can use a specific PIN when in the USA and another outside the USA, and access better rates whilst in the USA and cheap global rates when not. Once again, check out the forum and investigate what's best for you. Also, check eBay for SIM cards. Most of the MVNO's actually sell their SIM cards on there and you may get a better deal buying this way. Once again, shop around:)

Q. OK. I think i've made it through the maze. Now, what about pre-paid Data?

A. This is where it's messy. Most carriers still don't get pre-paid data at all. With the advent of the 3G iPad, AT&T was forced to offer pre-paid data services. The problem with that is a) they provide you with a micro-SIM card (which will only work in the iPad or iPhone 4) and b) it is data only, so you cannot place or receive voice calls on it. AT&T do offer pre-paid data, at around $20USD for 100mb. It's not cheap, but it may be an option. It can be tricky to add to your GO Phone account (the AT&T pre-paid voice offering) but it does work. If you have an iPhone and want to use this, you're best off looking at HOW TO: A guide for Australians using their iPhone 3G’s data services on AT&T in the USA. — perfectdarkmike for a step-by-step guide on how to add a MediaNet pack to your AT&T Pre-paid SIM card. If you're using an iPad or iPhone 4 with this, keep in mind you're going to need to cut the SIM to a micro-SIM size.

The new up-and-coming MVNO's based in the USA are also starting to offer all-you-can-eat packages for voice and data. You may be best off examining one of these as well if you plan on being there for a few weeks, or want to use plenty of data. Once again, the pre-paid GSM forum should have plenty of information on this.

Q. OK I've decided i'll do with wifi and not use any kind of mobile network for my data and I have an iPhone. I've heard horror stories about people coming back with large bills even though they don't have data roaming enabled. What gives?

A. Typically, this should not happen. Disabling data roaming in the iPhone should stop you from getting any charges like this on your account. As a general rule, if you do not see a small º up next to your signal, or E or 3G, you should not be able to use data.

As of iOS 4.0 (the Operating System that iPhones,iPod Touches and iPads run), Apple has now included an option to disable Mobile data totally, whilst allowing you to leave wifi operational. To do this, on your iPhone/iPod/iPad go to Settings -> General -> Network, and you will see Cellular Data which will most likely be set to ON. Slide the button to the left and it should change to OFF. This will then hide all mobile data options from your phone, leaving you with wifi only. Note that 3G has nothing to do with data, and is a technology only. The option for this on your screen can be left on.

You are now free to use just wifi.

If you do not have iOS 4.0 on your phone, it's advisable to upgrade. To do this, plug your device into the machine you activated it with using iTunes, and click 'Check for Update' from the Summary screen for your device. Note: to ensure you don't lose any Apps or call/SMS history, click the 'Sync' button in the bottom right prior to clicking 'Check for Update'. This will ensure your device is backed up and you don't lose any precious data.

If you really really really don't want to upgrade to 4.0, you'll need to install a fake APN. The APN, or Access Point Name, is what is used to control your access to the data network. Each carrier uses one or more APN to allow people access to data. In a nutshell, when carriers have agreements to allow each others customers to roam, the APN's are also allowed on the visiting network. If you put a fake APN into your phone, the network you'll be roaming on will not know about it, and it will fail. Unfortunately, most carriers restrict your access to modify the APN with your home SIM card in it. This is to prevent people accidentally deleting it and reduces their support queries. It's still advisable to just upgrade to iOS 4, but if you must stay on an old version for some reason, visit http://www.unlockit.co.nz/unlockit/ which has information on how to change your APN. Change it to something that makes no sense, say random characters. This will ensure that you cannot use any data at all.

If you're using one of the various MVNO's out there, a lot of them will allow you to modify your APN yourself. To do this, go to Settings -> General -> Network -> Cellular Data Network. In here, you'll see APN settings for Data, MMS and possibly other services. Make sure that all the APN's are set to random characters. When you get home, to ensure you're going to be able to access data and MMS, you'll need to reset your network settings. To do this, put your regular SIM back in your iPhone, go to Settings -> General -> Reset -> Reset Network Settings. You will be asked for your phone Passcode and then prompted to confirm your decision. Your phone may reboot. This will not erase any of your phone data, it simply resets the phone settings for access to the network.

Other things to keep in mind:

- If you are visiting Japan or South Korea, you are going to need a 3G handset. The networks in these countries are UMTS/HSDPA 2100mHz only, and older 2G style handsets will not work. You can check if your handset is 3G via GSMArena.com - GSM phone reviews, news, opinions, votes, manuals and more... and if it's not, simply buy one that does support 2100mHz 3G.

- If you are going with an MVNO, check the inbound and outbound rates. The USA doesn't believe in free-to-receive calls, and chances are you're going to have your pre-paid balance depleted for people calling you. Most are a moderate fee to receive, but it's still worthwhile factoring in.

- As mentioned, different MVNO's use different technologies and always "piggyback" off one or more of the existing larger carriers. They effectively buy "air time" and re-sell it to you, at a reduced rate. These are usually the most cost effective, and don't compromise quality. Some will partner with multiple carriers to give you more coverage in more places.

- You can always roam with your normal SIM card. Keep in mind that carriers like to stick it to you if you do this. You'll likely end up paying anywhere from $3.50-$5 per minute to make a call, and typically around $1.50/minute to receive one. Of course if you're only after an 'emergency' phone, the best thing to do is divert all calls (before you leave your home country) to voicemail/paging and check it sparingly. Calling voicemail will be the same as calling home in most cases, so you'll be stung the high outbound call cost. Data is typically around $20-30 per megabyte, so avoid that unless you really really really need it. Roaming is expensive when you're not using a local SIM or Global MVNO.

That's just an overview of it all. Global Roaming is meant to be "Easy" and it is, but it's only easy if you pay for it (thanks to your incumbent telco liking to make lots of cash off roaming partners). It often pays to spend a bit of time investigating options, to save yourself a small fortune to stay in touch whilst away overseas :)
 
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docjames

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Great post/thread.

I'd add it's worth remembering if you're wanting data access only (wireless) and not wanting to pay ripoff prices for a data sim, a large number of stores/venues offer free wifi (some free, some free with purchase) which for casual access to email / AFF etc (as opposed to work needs) can be useful. There are iphone/ipad apps which can "find" these for you, but there are heaps around.

Works for me, applies equally in EU/UK too.
 

Katie

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Drewbles, I'd love to see a list of your iPhone recommendations (turning push data off, etc) here. I tried to wade theough all the other posts, but obviousky dodn't get all the tips for my May trip - I got a $120 charge fromTelstra for 6 *minutes* of data in the US. :evil:
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Drewbles, I'd love to see a list of your iPhone recommendations (turning push data off, etc) here. I tried to wade theough all the other posts, but obviousky dodn't get all the tips for my May trip - I got a $120 charge fromTelstra for 6 *minutes* of data in the US. :evil:
Ahh good point. I'll update the post (working in my job i've heard a lot of iPhone data roaming horror stories). It does depend a little on your software revision, as Apple did actually include an option in iOS 4.0 to disable data totally, which does help. I'll update the post in the morning thanks for the suggestion! :D
 

straitman

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Drewbles, I'd love to see a list of your iPhone recommendations (turning push data off, etc) here. I tried to wade theough all the other posts, but obviousky dodn't get all the tips for my May trip - I got a $120 charge fromTelstra for 6 *minutes* of data in the US. :evil:
Ahh good point. I'll update the post (working in my job i've heard a lot of iPhone data roaming horror stories). It does depend a little on your software revision, as Apple did actually include an option in iOS 4.0 to disable data totally, which does help. I'll update the post in the morning thanks for the suggestion! :D
Katie,

As Drewbles points out the iPhone software has changes quite a lot since many of the previous posts and so much of the information is now out of date. The latest versions give you much better options.
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Katie,

As Drewbles points out the iPhone software has changes quite a lot since many of the previous posts and so much of the information is now out of date. The latest versions give you much better options.
Not everyone has updated their iPhone iOS yet though (I know a few people who simply don't plug their iPhone into a computer and just install all their Apps on their phone).

There are still ways around the issue though. I'll update them later today (and FYI Katie, data is all based on usage. If you end up on a 3G network, 6 minutes can do a lot of damage unfortunately).
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

I've added information on iDevices (iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad) for disabling data, based on someone running iOS 4.0 on their device. If you're not running it, upgrade :)

Note that the only devices that will not run iOS 4.0 are the original generation iPhone, and some older iPod Touches. 4.1 runs tolerably on the 3G iPhone, all be it with some features such as multitasking disabled, but runs smoothly on the 3GS and all iPhone 4.

The iPad is scheduled to receive iOS 4.2 in November. I'm currently beta testing it and it's a little different to disable data, but it's similar. I'll post an update to that when it's released (Apple's NDA's prevent me from being allowed to tell you how to do it now, it's stupid:))

I also added information on how to hack/change the APN yourself. Note that most carriers disable this ability so the Cellular Data Network menu mentioned will be disabled. I know our SIM cards allow changing of the APN, as do a lot of MVNO's, but carriers such as Telstra, Vodafone and Optus do not, so you may not see this menu with your normal SIM.
 
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Australian

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

an awesome contribution drewbles~ thx for taking the time to add this!

one thing, tho, i can t seem to link to ...blog.perfectdarkmike.com

i get: Firefox can't find the server at blog.perfectdarkmike.com and google cant find it either :confused:
 

Katie

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

and FYI Katie, data is all based on usage. If you end up on a 3G network, 6 minutes can do a lot of damage unfortunately
Thanks, drewbles, I do know that, which is why I was particularly galled that my Telstra bill measured the data charge in minutes, not MB. I've no idea if it was 6MB, or 60MB or 60KB I might have downloaded in that time. I tried not to use data for that reason, just got excited checking email once or twice on Mother's day, waiting for my email from the Apple store to pick up my iPad. ;)
Thanks for the other tips, and with OS 4.1 on my 3GS, my trip this coming week shouldn't have any extra nasty data suprises if I turn off cellular data. I think there's also a cheaper roaming data I can sign up for with Telstra, and I'll look into that. Still ouchy, but maybe not at the $120 for however much I downloaded in 6mins.
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

an awesome contribution drewbles~ thx for taking the time to add this!

one thing, tho, i can t seem to link to ...blog.perfectdarkmike.com

i get: Firefox can't find the server at blog.perfectdarkmike.com and google cant find it either :confused:
The website appears to be down at the moment (It's not my site so I can't help you with that one unfortunately). Looks like it may have vanished from the internet. I'm now trying to find a copy but not having much luck unfortunately. Try checking again in a few days.
 

albatross710

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

It's still advisable to just upgrade to iOS 4, but if you must stay on an old version for some reason, visit Unlockit - APN Changer for your iPhone which has information on how to change your APN. Change it to something that makes no sense, say random characters. This will ensure that you cannot use any data at all.
So now that I'm using iOS4 I don't need to use APN changer when I go international?

When I went to the US in April it was a little inconvenient to locate a wireless network initially to get the new settings. Same when I arrived back. Is it possible to use APN changer before you leave the country and are still accessing data via the local network?
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

So now that I'm using iOS4 I don't need to use APN changer when I go international?

When I went to the US in April it was a little inconvenient to locate a wireless network initially to get the new settings. Same when I arrived back. Is it possible to use APN changer before you leave the country and are still accessing data via the local network?
You can store the profiles from that website quite easily. Download the ones you are going to want whilst overseas to a desktop PC, and email them to yourself, an account that will be checked from your iPhone. Check your email, and it'll download the provisioning profiles. You can then select them (from within the email itself) whilst cellular data is disabled, providing you have downloaded them to your phone prior to leaving. Just be sure to get the one for the place you're going, and one for when you return.

This is all outlined in that website that is currently down unfortunately!

Here's hoping it comes back up soon. I know the procedure, but it was written so much better than I could write it out from memory.

Hopefully that's not as clear as mud ;)
 

albatross710

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

You can store the profiles from that website quite easily. Download the ones you are going to want whilst overseas to a desktop PC, and email them to yourself, an account that will be checked from your iPhone. Check your email, and it'll download the provisioning profiles. You can then select them (from within the email itself) whilst cellular data is disabled, providing you have downloaded them to your phone prior to leaving. Just be sure to get the one for the place you're going, and one for when you return.
OK, that makes sense. Will endeavour to monitor that website and hopefully download the files.
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

OK, that makes sense. Will endeavour to monitor that website and hopefully download the files.
Sorry wasn't quite clear here. You can get the APN profiles from Unlockit - APN Changer for your iPhone not the website that's down. Download them to your desktop, email them to yourself, check your email on your iPhone and you'll have the profiles there to activate when you need them. Just ensure that your phone has downloaded the attachments properly or you'll not have them when you're offline.
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

** update **

The guide is now back. It would appear to be a temporary glitch.

I can confirm it works. I'm in Los Angeles at present using an AT&T GoPhone (in my iPhone 4) with the $20/100mb MediNet pack and it's great. It's not the cheapest option, but it does work well and is a damn site cheaper than roaming data at least.
 

dfcatch

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Great guide Drewbles.

I, like many others had to figure all this out alone.

I have an AT&T sim card and a Rogers sim card in my carry-on for this exact purpose ;)
 

AUSSKY

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Data - used Sprint via Rovair
Voice - used Verizon prepaid

We have been to the US twice in the last 18 months for between 30 and 35 days each time and both times have hired an aircard from Rovair - we got the 595U from Sprint which worked well 98% of the time and if you pick up an aerial to boost the signal from EBay (about $30) you'll have pretty faultless connection - and we got into some pretty remote areas in the central parts and up into Montana. $5.95USD per day and they deliver to your hotel the first night and provide you with a post paid return satchel - couldn't be easier!!!! You can download the software before you leave Australia...insert the aircard into the USB slot and it takes about 10 seconds to be on the net... go to the rovair dot com site for more info


Re phones - we are with Optus in Australia and carried the old Nokia with us - ok for part of the time (expensive) but there are large gaps in the relationships they have with US carriers, so we wandered into Walmart and bought a prepaid Verizon phone for about $40 and a $20 international cheap phonecard to call back to Australia as well (Verizon again - 5.6c per minute (ish)) to use in hotels (toll free number - but always check at the desk just in case). Worked a treat too and made the calls for the 35 days we were on the ground very cheap....one trick to remember with Verizon - when the phone is roaming with any of their partners, you will get a recorded message after you have dialled the number that you want, goes something like...."we are unable to put your call through, please dial the number again"

They want you to dial the same number again but don't hang up - it's a check to make sure that you really do want to make the call..

eg: if you were in Kansas and you wanted to call a number that is provided by a different carrier you would go about it thus:

dial (310) 670-9000...you get the above message and you simply redial exactly the same number...and wait for the call to be put through..

Had no problems with either carrier for data or voice.

cheers!!
 

drewbles

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Data - used Sprint via Rovair
Voice - used Verizon prepaid

We have been to the US twice in the last 18 months for between 30 and 35 days each time and both times have hired an aircard from Rovair - we got the 595U from Sprint which worked well 98% of the time and if you pick up an aerial to boost the signal from EBay (about $30) you'll have pretty faultless connection - and we got into some pretty remote areas in the central parts and up into Montana. $5.95USD per day and they deliver to your hotel the first night and provide you with a post paid return satchel - couldn't be easier!!!! You can download the software before you leave Australia...insert the aircard into the USB slot and it takes about 10 seconds to be on the net... go to the rovair dot com site for more info
Interesting! Never heard of this service!

Re phones - we are with Optus in Australia and carried the old Nokia with us - ok for part of the time (expensive) but there are large gaps in the relationships they have with US carriers, so we wandered into Walmart and bought a prepaid Verizon phone for about $40 and a $20 international cheap phonecard to call back to Australia as well (Verizon again - 5.6c per minute (ish)) to use in hotels (toll free number - but always check at the desk just in case). Worked a treat too and made the calls for the 35 days we were on the ground very cheap....one trick to remember with Verizon - when the phone is roaming with any of their partners, you will get a recorded message after you have dialled the number that you want, goes something like...."we are unable to put your call through, please dial the number again"

They want you to dial the same number again but don't hang up - it's a check to make sure that you really do want to make the call..

eg: if you were in Kansas and you wanted to call a number that is provided by a different carrier you would go about it thus:

dial (310) 670-9000...you get the above message and you simply redial exactly the same number...and wait for the call to be put through..

Had no problems with either carrier for data or voice.

cheers!!
This is why you use one of the international roaming SIM Cards. Eliminates the need for any phone card, and lets you use any GSM handset (providing it's tri/quad band). The company I work for does sell phone cards (it was our core business for many years) but people are demanding the SIM card. It gives you security travelling and lets people get in contact with you easily too.

But this thread was designed to be an info on mobile roaming more than anything (hence the topic ;)).

And welcome to AFF!
 

straitman

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re: Guide for Mobile Voice & Data in the USA

Data - used Sprint via Rovair
Voice - used Verizon prepaid

We have been to the US twice in the last 18 months for between 30 and 35 days each time and both times have hired an aircard from Rovair - we got the 595U from Sprint which worked well 98% of the time and if you pick up an aerial to boost the signal from EBay (about $30) you'll have pretty faultless connection - and we got into some pretty remote areas in the central parts and up into Montana. $5.95USD per day and they deliver to your hotel the first night and provide you with a post paid return satchel - couldn't be easier!!!! You can download the software before you leave Australia...insert the aircard into the USB slot and it takes about 10 seconds to be on the net... go to the rovair dot com site for more info


Re phones - we are with Optus in Australia and carried the old Nokia with us - ok for part of the time (expensive) but there are large gaps in the relationships they have with US carriers, so we wandered into Walmart and bought a prepaid Verizon phone for about $40 and a $20 international cheap phonecard to call back to Australia as well (Verizon again - 5.6c per minute (ish)) to use in hotels (toll free number - but always check at the desk just in case). Worked a treat too and made the calls for the 35 days we were on the ground very cheap....one trick to remember with Verizon - when the phone is roaming with any of their partners, you will get a recorded message after you have dialled the number that you want, goes something like...."we are unable to put your call through, please dial the number again"

They want you to dial the same number again but don't hang up - it's a check to make sure that you really do want to make the call..

eg: if you were in Kansas and you wanted to call a number that is provided by a different carrier you would go about it thus:

dial (310) 670-9000...you get the above message and you simply redial exactly the same number...and wait for the call to be put through..

Had no problems with either carrier for data or voice.

cheers!!
AUSSKY,

Thanks for the info and welcome to AFF.
 

drewbles

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Update for anyone using AT&T GoPhone pre-paid in the USA.

Data rates have been improved significantly for people using more than 100mb.

500mb is now available for $25USD, and the old 100mb goes to $15 (not better there, but the 500mb is reasonable).

Screen capture of the changes in the GoPhone Portal is below.

 

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