Ready SIM solves short-term SIM dilemmas for US visitors

ready-simSource arstechnica

It’s no secret—I think all Americans (myself included) are generally paying way too much for our mobile phones. That’s why I was intrigued to hear about a new Vancouver-based mobile startup now offering American customers (and people visiting the United States for short periods of time) a relatively cheap and disposable way to get mobile service: $25 for seven days of 500MB of data, plus unlimited voice/text.

This alternative comes from a company called Roam Mobility. Launched in November 2012, its Ready SIM product is still relatively unknown in the US. But you can find Ready SIM online throughAmazon, and with any luck, on American military bases in the coming months. The company even handed out 1,000 SIMs this week at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference in Austin, Texas.

Ready SIM says “hundreds” of new SIMs are being activated every day. The company’s userbase is really small compared to the big players like AT&T or Verizon, which count their own customer bases in the tens of millions or more. But Ready SIM expects there to be a total of 200,000 people using its network by the end of 2013. People are starting to pay attention.

Bills, bills, bills
After spending a couple days using Ready SIM, I’m not ready to switch over just yet, but its disruptive presence in the US could point the way forward for cheaper service for everyone.

Currently, my wife and I pay $90 per month (unlimited text/voice and about 2GB of data) for our two iPhones. We use Straight Talk, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) of AT&T—meaning the company buys tower spectrum and service wholesale from its larger corporate partner. That’s cheap compared to many other big American providers. By comparison, two iPhones on Verizon will run $160 a month, though that includes LTE service not provided by Straight Talk. (Hey, I can live with 3G!)

But what I’ve always wanted here in the US is what I had when we were living in Germany from 2010 to 2012: a cheap, prepaid, debit-style mobile offering, where the receiver doesn’t pay for incoming texts or calls. In nearly every other country in the world, this seems to be the norm.

For two years, we were happy customers of Blau.de (an E-Plus MVNO). The company offered a prepaid 1GB of data for just €10 ($12.60) and €0.09 ($0.11) per minute to any German phone number and €0.09 per text to any German mobile phone. In Germany, we spent something like €40 ($52) per month on average. That’s roughly half of what we currently spend and about one-third of what most similar iPhone users pay stateside.

Last month, I reported from Belgium on what may be my favorite mobile provider anywhere in the world: Mobile Vikings. With any luck, they’ll launch soon in the United States. I’d take the company’s basic offering in a heartbeat: €15 ($20) per month for 2GB of mobile data, $0.32/min for voice, and 1,000 text messages. Another favorite of mine is 3 in the United Kingdom. This company offers a 30-day deal for just 15 British pounds ($23), which includes 300 domestic minutes, 3,000 text messages, and unlimited data. (Remember, incoming is free in Europe.)

More than the Verizons and AT&Ts we’re used to, Roam Mobility and Ready SIM are closer relatives to these appealing European offers.

Paying more in the Great White North
Roam’s entire ethos is that Canadians (the vast majority of whom live within an hour or two of the American border) are paying way too much when they cross down into the Lower 48. And the company isn’t the only one saying it: the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found in 2011 that Canadians pay the most for mobile Roaming for any country within its 34-member bloc.

That’s why Roam’s first and primary product was to sell SIM cards to Canadians traveling to the US starting at $4 for 100MB for 24 hours of data with unlimited calls and texts to US and Canada. (That goes all the way up to $90 for 3GB of data, valid for 30 days.) The company explains: “Your US phone number (with a Detroit area code) is automatically assigned upon activation. As long as you use the service once a year, that number is yours to keep.”

In 2012, Roam made waves across Canada with headlines like: “Beating the Roaming charges blues.”The company’s new product, Ready SIM (a T-Mobile MVNO), extends this same concept: cheap, prepaid, short-term usage for purchase and exclusive use within the United States.

Activation in three sentences
Here’s how it works: Pick a plan based on how long you need a SIM card for. Want three days with no data but unlimited text and voice? That will be $15. Fourteen days with 1GB of data plus unlimited calls and SMSes? $35. That’s not quite the $45 per month I pay with Straight Talk, but it’s getting there. And it’s even more attractive to people who are only in the US for a very short period of time.

Activating the service may even be easier than choosing your plan. Personally, I’ve never seen a simpler and quicker mobile phone setup. Emir Aboulhosn, Roam Mobility’s founder, first contacted me in late February and offered to send me two 7-day SIM cards. (In other words, they expire after a week of use.) Once I got them, I flipped the package over and saw these instructions:

“This is how easy Ready SIM is: Insert your SIM and turn on your device. Text your ZIP code to 7850. Get your local number and it’s ready.”

Numbers that expire can be topped up within three days of expiration. After that they go back into the “number pool” for 60 days and can be re-assigned.

Seriously, that was all it took. Why aren’t other mobile carriers like this? Maybe it’s because they want to know all kinds of information about you. They want to know your name, get credit card details, and collect all sorts of other things to be able to continue selling you the service.

“We don’t know who our customers are,” Aboulhosn told me by phone this week.

Roam Mobility’s message is clear: the company doesn’t care. Rather than worry about the “churn rate” (how many customers a company is gaining or losing over time), Aboulhosn and colleagues merely make money off each SIM card sold.

I used Ready SIM as my primary SIM card for a few days around the Bay Area. I found that when the 3G kicked in, the speeds were noticeably faster than what Straight Talk currently gives me. This is probably because T-Mobile is in the process of upgrading its network to better accommodate the iPhone.

From my home office in Oakland, California, I only get EDGE on Ready SIM while I consistently get 3G on Straight Talk (AT&T). But when I moved around the city or headed down to San Jose, I consistently got download speeds in the 1 to 2 Mbps range—better than what Straight Talk gives me over 3G most of the time. Straight Talk, however, does serve me up 3G just about everywhere I go.

Increased privacy
Although Roam Mobility doesn’t say this explicitly on its homepage, Aboulhosn pointed out that as a “disposable” service, Ready SIM makes it much more difficult for a user to be surveilled or tracked.

Firstly, he said, the company uses a proxy service, its own private APN separate from T-Mobile. ”So even if you look at the traffic on the Web, it looks like it’s all going to the same place: the proxy server.”

When I ran that by Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, he offered up this observation by e-mail:

Anonymous SIMs tend to not be terribly anonymous, unless you use them with a brand new phone.

There is a unique serial # associated with the SIM (IMSI), and another unique serial associated with the phone (IMEI). You can pop in a new SIM card every day or two, but the serial for your phone will stay the same. Switching SIM cards with the same phone is a behavior that sticks out like a sore thumb when folks analyze carrier logs. I’ve even seen surveillance vendor marketing materials that claim to be able to recognize this behavior.

Getting a new cell phone every few days gets expensive, fast.

Oh, and on top of that, you can’t use it at your house, office, or anywhere else associated with your actual identity or the location data gives it away.

Staying anonymous with a cellphone is damn difficult.

 
When I ran Soghoian’s comments back to Roam, Troy Kleweno, the company’s chief technology officer, responded this way:

Yes, we aren’t breaking any laws and devices all have an IMEI.  But in order for anyone to pull records and see the IMEI they first have to pin a person to a phone number. In order to do that, one of two things needs to happen:

1)  The user has registered the device at activation or some other time  (we don’t even know who our users are)

2)  You can prove that a MSISDN [another important number, uniquely identifying a subscription in a GSM or a UMTS mobile network] or IMEI belongs to a user.

a. For IMEI this is difficult because no one knows it until they see the records, which they can’t see until they know who owns the IMEI.

b. For MSISDN, the temporary nature of the device makes it very difficult to ascertain who owns the MSISDN.

So this is not guaranteed protection for life by any means, as that would certainly be illegal anyway.  But it does offer a layer of separation for sure. If someone uses this program repeatedly with the same device, after a while one of their phone numbers will be detected and a subpoena request will yield those CDRs.

At that time, the IMEI can be gleaned and then a subsequent subpoena could pull records for that IMEI.

IMEI is mainly used for stolen phones (reported as such) and for fraud detection (spamming, SIM boxes etc.). Roam certainly wants to keep those guys off our network as well because it gets very expensive.

 
Kleweno added later, “While the carrier assigns an IP to the device, the proxy assigns an additional one which goes out to the Internet.  So there is an IP switch mid-stream. The Call Detail Record (CDR) that Roam receives does NOT contain the actual IP address of any visited site. So here again, the theme is ‘not untraceable, just shielded—and completely legal.’”

As proof, Kleweno sent me a copy of my CDR for a usage period of a few hours on Thursday. It showed my online traffic repeatedly accessing a T-Mobile IP address and not much else. Ready SIM seems likely better than your existing mobile network in terms of privacy, but as Soghoian noted, you should use it at your own risk.

two-sims-640x478

Not changing over just yet
So given the ease of use, the price, and privacy considerations, why wouldn’t I switch to Ready SIM?

First off, the product isn’t cheaper than what I’m already paying. It’s merely close, at $55 (Straight Talk is still $10 cheaper, at $45 per month). Plus, by using the T-Mobile network in this area, my data was much more inconsistent than it is currently on AT&T.

Second and more importantly though, there’s no practical way for me to use Ready SIM at the moment unless I want to buy a new SIM every 30 days. The company doesn’t give me the option of keeping a SIM that I already have beyond the timed expiration that it’s set up for. It also doesn’t allow me to port my own number to its service.

“Number porting is not likely to be available this year but top ups will be available starting next month,” Aboulhosn told Ars by e-mail.

Third, for now Ready SIM doesn’t have any option to purchase a non-standard SIM card size such as a micro-SIM (required for my phone, the iPhone 4), or nano-SIM (iPhone 5). I had to cut the SIM card down to size to make it fit my phone.

Aboulhosn added that “on April 15 we’ll have the reversible Standard/Micro SIM which lets users swap the same SIM between standard and micro SIM format. As for the nano, we haven’t seen the demand yet but I expect we’ll also bring them to market this year as more people ask for it.”

Should Ready SIM get under $45 and fix the top-up issue, I’d definitely switch. It’d be an easy transfer too. After all, that’s the beauty of prepaid carriers—no need to wait for contracts to expire!

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