Phillip Smith

Living on a gigabyte of data

(It's kinda' like moving into a bigger apartment)

Digital Nomad

As I left Oaxaca on Saturday afternoon, heading for Vancouver, I was thinking “Ug, what am I going to do about phone service for the next seven weeks?” 

Over the years, every time I hit the road for a few months I start the dance with my mobile phone service provider in Canada (one of the big three telecom monopolies). First is the call to put my phone service on some “seasonal” plan that keeps my account active at the minimum possible expense, usually about $7/month. I’ve been free of any type of contract for several years now and like to keep it that way, and these seasonal plans help to ensure that I’ve got some negotiating leverage when I need to inevitably make that call to ask them to turn my account back on. However, almost without fail, the plan I was on is no longer offered, and then starts the dance of finding a new plan. No matter what, it’s always more than I want to pay (mostly because I always want to play less).

In Mexico, I’ve recently found a great little plan from Movistar (one that doesn’t feel like Carlos Slim is personally sticking it to me) for 200 pesos/month (~$17 CAD) that includes unlimited calls and texts to other Movistar customers, 500 minutes of calls to other people in Mexico, as well as the US and Canada, 100 texts to non-Movistar customers, and – last but not least – 250MB of data (but e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are all free and unlimited). 200 pesos a month I can afford, feels about right, and meets my needs nicely.

Because I move around a fair bit, I’m always searching for a solution to make it easy for my friends, family, and clients to reach me no matter where I am. In 2009, it was DIDWW that enabled me to route a Toronto phone number over the Internet to my land line in Buenos Aires. Most recently, in 2011, I switched to RingCentral, which I use to manage all of my phone numbers in Toronto and a 1-888 toll-free number. RingCentral also enables me to manage my voicemails, provides call routing to wherever I am in the world and call rules that determine which phones to ring when (landline, mobile, or softphone), as well as enabling me to send and receive SMS messages via my main Toronto number. It’s a great service, but it’s not inexpensive. The big upside, however, is the RingCentral iOS app – which continues to improve rapidly – that lets me make and take calls on my iPhone over my phone’s data connection (or WiFi, if available).

So, as I was heading back toward Canada, I was thinking “Jeez, I don’t actually make that many traditional phone calls these days, why do I need to restart a traditional plan for airtime for just seven weeks?” For example: 

  • My weekly conference calls are almost exclusively done on Skype, or – failing that – using my RingCentral app and a wireless connection.
  • Ninety percent of incoming calls and client inquiries are routing to the RingCentral app on my phone first, so they rarely terminate at a land line or my mobile phone service.
  • Most of the little things that I previously used my phone service for now have non-phone alternatives, e.g., I can order taxis in most cities using an app, I can speak with customer service representatives through online chat, and so on.

As I turned on my phone in Vancouver, I thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be great if my current provider was finally offering an affordable data-only package.”

Two minutes later, to my great surprise, I received an SMS from welcoming me to Canada and offering me a link to sign-up for a pay-as-you-go data plan. I followed the link, and was offered a free trial: 1GB good for 30 days! Serendipity. 

Obviously, I signed up keen to know if it will be possible to dump my mobile airtime plan in favour of a data-only existence. Currently the balance “owing” on my mobile account here in Canada is -$9. We’ll see what it is when I leave to head back south in October. 

File under missives from a cost-conscious digital drifter.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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