Monday, April 27, 2015

iPhone Plan in Ottawa

Update (Aug 2017)

It looks like virgin and bell have changed their plans.

Price scheme is now increased to $20/mo if you use less than 500mb or $30/mo if you use less than 2gb

Rogers is more expensive.

Telus now offers a similar plan at $20/mo if you use less than 1gb
That's probably the best bet.

Short Story (Oct 2015)

All the phone companies are ripping you off. Just buy any phone, and sign up for a tablet plan (i.e. data only), and use Fongo for your phone. You'll pay $20/mo instead of $90/mo for the same service.

Ok. It's not actually that good, but it's close. Here's what you do.

Buy any unlocked phone, or even a locked phone as long as it's with the carrier you plan to use. But you have to buy the phone outright, not with a contract. For example, $350 for the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua from Virgin.

I've done this with an unlocked iPhone with Virgin, and a locked Xperia with Virgin, and my brother has done it with and unlocked iPhone with Bell. When I checked plans, Virgin and Bell had the best (and equivalent) plans.

For the iPhone, I went to a Virgin store and bought a nano SIM and set up the account over the phone at home. For the Xperia, I went into a Virgin store and bought the phone, and they sold me and installed a nano SIM for $5, then we setup the account over the phone later, but I think you can do it in store. With Bell, my brother took the iPhone into the Bell store, bought a nano SIM for $25 and setup the account at the store.

All you have to do is insist that you want the data only, month-to-month tablet plan. Don't listen if they say it wont work. It works fine. The Virgin plan is called the Flexi-Data Tablet Plan. The Bell plan is called the Flex Plan for tablets. Both cost $20/month so long as you use less than 1GB of data. If you go over it's $40 for that month so long as you use less than 5GB of data. The price goes up from there at $10/GB.

It's easy to use under 1GB of data. Whenever you're at home or at work or at the coffee shop or the airport, you can be on wifi, and for example on the iPhone, you can go to Settings, then Cellular, and block certain apps (like G+ because of image backup, or podcasts or whatever) from using cellular data.

Ok, so you've got cheep data. Now what. Download the Fongo app. This is basically free phone. You get to choose a local number and it works just like a regular smart phone. See below for more details.

You buy add-ons in Fongo as in-app purchases. You'll want to pay the $4 one-time-fee to remove the add banner. Then, if you have friends with SMS, you'll want to buy 6-months (the cheapest rate) of unlimited SMS for $10. If you'll need to call remote places in canada, or outside of canada, you'll want to buy some world credits.

Ok. So you're good to go. One drawback is short-code-SMS. See below for details. This means you can't use SMS as a second-factor authentication for websites and services. For google, you can uses google authenticator instead. For Uber, you can just post on their facebook page, or their support page and they'll fix it for you. (That's what I did. See below.)

Another drawback is that your phone really is a phone. Your SIM is associated with a number from your carrier (Virgin or Bell), and it can receive SMS and phone calls. It's not supposed to, but I think they slip through if originating from the same carrier. I get a spam text or call once every few months. Don't answer the calls. You'll be billed by the minute. Also note that people on iMessage will see your carrier number because it's bound to your SIM. So it's possible some contacts might get confused and try to call you on your carrier number, which will fail to connect.

One more drawback is that there is no option to add roaming data. So if you travel to the US, you're on wifi only unless you swap your SIM for a local plan, which is cheap and easy and you really should do.

So, it's not perfect, but it's $20/mo + $10/6mo for SMS + potentially some world credits, and you only get 1GB, but in my experience that's plenty. And your alternative for equivalent service is $90/mo, which feels like robbery. That's a difference of $840 in just one year.

Remember, think like Mr. Money Mustache, and go shopping with your middle finger first.

Long Story

I'm getting an iPhone. I'll probably use 20 minutes voice and send 20 texts per month. I'd like to have a low monthly fee.

Google Voice isn't officially available in Canada, although two blogs ( and explain how it can be done for home phone.

Fongo (previously DELL Voice) is a Canadian equivalent that provides:

  • a free local Canadian phone number
  • free unlimited calls and texts between Fongo numbers anywhere in the world
  • free unlimited incoming calls and texts from anywhere in the world
  • free unlimited outgoing calls to Canadian numbers
  • cheap outgoing calls to non-Canadian numbers
  • cheap outgoing texts
  • free voicemail, caller ID, and call waiting
  • support for 911
  • ability to call any number: landline or mobile, domestic or international

Fongo's revenue comes from optional add-on features, pre-paid worldwide calling credits, and in-app ads.

When you're connected on a call, Fongo uses 0.5 MB of data per minute so a 500 MB data plan will get you 1000 minutes of talk time. When you're not on a call, Fongo uses a minimal amount of data to listen for incoming calls.

Think Skype is a Fongo alternative? Think again. The list of supported countries doesn't include Canada. The skype community thinks it has something to do with 911 restrictions. A published alternative is nothing like a real canadian number.

MagicJack also has a VOIP iphone app. But you can only get at US phone number.

Dan Misener suggests getting a Bell Nano SIM from your local Apple store and signing up for a month-to-month tablet Flex plan from Bell. Just don't tell them your device is actually a phone. He pays ~$40/month (tax in) for 5GB of data.

The virgin mobile tablet plan is $20/mo for 1GB, $40/mo for 5GB. Coverage is canada-wide. Bell posts the same rate. Both appear to just scale up as you use more. Telus is a bit more expensive. The virgin plan notes that data roaming outside Canada is automatically blocked.

I think I'll try Virgin Mobile with Fongo.

Here's How To Set It Up

Go to a Virgin Mobile store and but a nanoSIM. This is the same thing you would buy for a regular phone plan. Take it home and use the SIM ejection tool to eject the SIM card tray. Cut or snap the nanoSIM out of its carrier, place it in the tray, and re-insert the tray.

Plug your phone into USB power. It will say "Slide to Setup". It will ask for your regional settings, WiFi network, AppleID and a bunch more setup. You won't be able to setup iCloud Keychain because you're not yet able to receive SMS messages.

The virgin mobile tablet plan page doesn't indicate how to join. If you hunt, you'll find their contact us page which gives their canadian number 1-888-999-2321.

Dial this and follow the prompts to indicate you want to sign up for a new monthly (not prepaid) tablet plan. Then you'll be on hold for a while. They'll need the number from your SIM card and the IMEI number from your phone. They'll also want to do a credit check, so they'll want your SIN and driver's licence. They'll give you an account number and a phone number, even though it's a tablet plan. The phone number shouldn't work.

Once you have the virgin mobile account number, you can register online to see your account details. Then in "My Profile", "Bills and Services", "Method of Payment", you can sign up for auto-pay from your visa.

By now, your iPhone should show in its top left corner that it's connected to virgin mobile. Go to the app store and get Fongo. Launch the app and register. You'll have to give your name and address and email, and you'll get to choose a local phone number.

Your phone will ring even if the Fongo app isn't running. It obeys the normal iPhone ring/vibrate controls.

In the Fongo app, from the menu, one option is Voicemail. In the Voicemail view, you can click a little phone icon which places a phone call to their voice mail system. From there you can choose options to listen to and/or delete voicemails. This is like a standard phone voicemail system, not like a local app that is a library of messages. The voicemail itself doesn't show the number who called.

In the Fongo app, from the menu, one option is History. In the History view, you can see all missed calls, and dial them from there. So you can deduce the number that left you a voicemail and return their call.

In the Fongo app, from the menu, one option is Add-Ons.

You can subscribe to Unlimited Canada Texting. As of May 2015 you can buy one month for $2.29, or three months for $5.79, or six months for $9.99, i.e. $1.70/month.

You can pay to remove ads from fongo. This also lets you set a custom outgoing Call Display Name. As of May 2015 you can pay a one time fee of $4.59 to permanently remove adds.

Now that you can send text messages, you can setup iCloud keychain.


Got my first bill. Used only 14 MB. But that appears to cover only May 2nd to May 5th. It looks like the bills come on the 6th of each month. It shows my next bill date as June 6th. In the "My Service" tab, it shows a usage summary from May 6th to May 25th of 294 MB, so still well under 1GB/mo. It looks like you get penalized on your first month unless you start just after the 6th.

Monthly  5.00
Other    0.67
Usage   15.00
Tax      2.69
Total   23.36

Here's another example, for June 6 - July 6, 2015, I used 261 MB, well under the 1024 MB limit. Note that it shows a call and a message. That's weird since the phone isn't supposed to support calls or messaged, but I do receive a monthly SMS from virgin telling me when my bill is ready and I've occasionally received a hangup call. Probably a weird robot is able to ring but not connect. I'll make a point of not answering calls that come to the virgin number.

Tablet Flexi-Data                          $5.00
Airtime @$.40/minute      1:00 min:sec     $0.40
Stepped Data Usage        261.8907 MB     $14.99
Unlimited messages        1 event          $0.00

Short Code SMS (May 2015)

I wasn't able to confirm my mobile number with Uber. Their help page says this is because my carrier is blocking short code SMS. Fongo's help page says it is not possible to text short codes (also known as premium rate SMS) at this time. This includes SMS verification and 2-stage authentication methods use by Facebook, Whats app, Viber, Apple and Google.

I opened a support case with Fongo:

This is a feature request.

I see from your knowledge base that you don't support short code SMS.

This means that I can't use my Fongo phone with Uber. Just wanted to let you know that I would definitely pay for this service were you to offer it.

Do you know of any workaround? I have an iPhone with a data-only plan, so my only number is my Fongo number and Uber requires confirmation via short-code SMS in order to ride.


And promptly got this reply:


Unfortunately there is no work around, you must look for a different service provider.


Uber doesn't have a contact us or support request on their website, so I posted the following comment on their facebook page:

I have a Fongo phone. It's like google voice for Canada. Details here:

I can't confirm my mobile number with Uber because that requires short code SMS. Details here:

And there's currently no way to send or receive short code SMS with Fongo. Details here:

I see that you offer a workaround for google voice. Any chance you'll do the same for Fongo?

And promptly got this reply:

Hey Michael - give your account 1 more try, you should be up and running now!

Not sure how they found my Uber account given just my Facebook ID (which I don't think shares my email), but sure enough, I logged into Uber and my Fongo number is now authenticated. Uber is awesome.

In retrospect, maybe all you have to do is submit your number on their support page, and they'll fix it for you.

Note: I don't have a problem with short-code SMS with Google because I use their authenticator app as 2nd factor instead of SMS. I haven't tried facebook. I've had no problem with apple, but they haven't asked for my fongo number.

Also note that your phone does have a SIM number and iMessage sends to the SIM number not your phone/SMS number, but it's not really using the phone-ness of the SIM, it's just a way that apple looks up your appleID.

Update (Oct 2015)

My brother just walked into a bell store in Ottawa with an unlocked iPhone. He bought a SIM for $25 and insisted they activate a tablet plan. Three different employees insisted that the tablet plan wouldn't work on his iPhone because "it's different data", and that he would be out the $25 for the SIM and the first month's fee.

They were wrong. His data service kicked in as he walked to his car.

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