Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Cheap cellphones and airtime

'Possum communications! You know, as in no monthly bill, no permanent (or otherwise) address, no signing on the line, etc.
I was in Dollar General a couple of weeks ago and noticed that they have Tracfones for $10, including, I presume, airtime. That caught my eye, but not enough to cause me to pick it up and see how much airtime is included. But then I was browsing Ebay earlier today and saw 60 minute Tracfone cards for 99 cents, with free shipping! Wow! A ten dollar cellphone and service for 1.6 cents per minute! I would have loved that a few years ago when I was living offgrid and using a Tracfone for my telecom needs; I think the phone was about $40 and service was probably 30 cents per minute unless you bought 1000 minutes at a time; then it dropped to maybe 10 cents a minute.
Nowadays I have an actual service contract so I can keep in touch with family and also use it for my business phone (I kept the Tracfone off except when I wanted to actually make a call), but my latest camera-flip-phone stops working as soon as I get more than a mile from a major highway. I'm not kidding. That joker is NOT gonna work on my next trip to Terlingua. However, my previous "plan" phone actually DID work in some areas of Terlingua Ranch. In fact, full-scale in a few areas. While I was there, I mapped out the areas that gave me the best coverage so I would know where to head for when I needed to call home (or anywhere else).
Well, because I'm planning to go back fairly soon and I'm planning a couple of smaller trips even sooner, I started looking at my options for having a working phone in the hinterlands.
First, of course, I looked at Tracfone. It's a good deal, no doubt about it. But I don't know about the performance of their offerings, in terms of range to the tower. I'm sure they have some that perform as well as my old Nokia 6010 program phone, whose performance is not stellar but blows away the flip-phone and, as noted, does work at Terlingua. Maybe the basic Tracfone performs that well; I just don't know. Too bad I gave away my old analog Tracfone. That one would have been great at 1.6 cents per minute! It blew away the 6010, not to mention the flipper.
Then I dug out the old 6010 and powered it up. It did power up, asking for a SIM card. I experimented a bit to see if I could use it to make calling-card calls, as I've read that the old analog phones can do; at least the unlocked ones. No dice. So I looked all over the Internet and found out how to unlock the 6010, which I did successfully. Still no dice. Still it asks for a SIM card. OK, so let's look on Ebay for a SIM card.
There were scads of SIM cards on Ebay! Auctions ending every minute. I ended up buying a pre-activated SIM card that already has a phone number loaded, and includes 150 minutes of airtime, for $7.99 and free shipping. That's 5.3 cents per minute, not as cheap as the Tracfone minutes but cheaper overall for me, since I already had an unused phone. No hassle either; just plug in the card and it is initialized automatically. And, as I've pointed out, I know it works at Terlingua.
OK, but that's not all. Remember my brief mention of my first cellphone, the old analog unit? Also, the mention of using analog phones with a regular phone card. Well, I gave that one away, but there are old analog phones on Ebay. In fact, there are old, analog, 3-watt Motorola BAGPHONES on Ebay! Oh man, but I wanted one of those! I really spend quite a bit of time in areas that no cellphone I've ever had would work in, even the old analog. But a big honkin' bagphone with a big honkin' outside antenna will work out of those areas if anything will! I can imagine aiming a directional Yagi just so and getting multiple bounces off the mountains, burning holes through the foliage and killing myriad small creatures on its way to a full-scale connection with yon distant tower. OK, we're getting a little out of hand with that one but I really do envision being able to connect out of areas I never could before, and with perhaps a little tweaking of the antenna or moving 100 yards in one direction or another, getting a signal just about everywhere on Terlingua Ranch. Being able to make that phone call from my camp instead of driving 5 miles or more to a previously mapped-out hot spot.
I searched all over the Internet and found that lots of people who spend a lot of time "way out there": sailors, Jeepers, campers, loggers etc. have and love these old phones. Apparently, besides the aforementioned use of calling cards, you can take these dinosaurs to at least a few cellular providers (Alltel came up more than once) and set it up for a prepaid account.
So I bought one. 20 bucks, shipping included. At the time that I looked, there were lots of them for sale. I've found that things like that tend to go in cycles, but I don't know if that's true of these. All I know is I didn't want to take a chance on them becoming unobtanium next week, so I jumped while there was plenty of padding, so to speak. You'll notice I didn't mention this until I had mine, mwahahaaa!
I look forward to many happy hours of experimentation with that puppy, and I will of course report my findings right here.

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