This week I'm in Argentina, teaching IBM Business Partners and sales reps about the latest System Storage products. Encouraged by my success on my Digital IBMer tour last month in Europe, I decided to get a SIM chip for my smartphone here in Buenos Aires.
I did my homework. There are three major mobile service providers that offer pre-paid GSM-based SIM chips: Claro, Movistar, and Personal. I arrived on Sunday morning, but thanks to the local [blue laws], none of them were open. I was able to walk around and find retail outlets for each within blocks of my hotel.
All three offer voice and SMS text messaging, but online reviews indicated that Movistar offered the best data plan. I was there at 9:30am sharp, the moment the Movistar store opened Monday morning. The lovely young lady behind the counter was quite helpful. She put the SIM chip in my phone, but then told me it might be an hour or two before it was activated. I would receive an SMS text message welcoming me to the Movistar network. She provided my new 12-digit phone number, along with instructions on how to check my balance (*444) or call for technical assistance (*611).
(FTC Disclosure: even though I am not in the United States as I write this, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules require that I mention that this blog post is not intended as a paid or celebrity endorsement for any of the cellphone service providers mentioned. I work for IBM, and this post is based entirely on my personal experience.)
Why not just use international roaming available on my US plan? International roaming is quite expensive! I made the mistake of uploading three hi-res photos to Flickr last year in New Zealand to discover this the hard way. Here is a comparison chart:
(If your spouse or significant other threatens to leave you if you don't call her every day while out of the country, remind her that divorce attorneys are less expensive than these international roaming rates! Fortunately, all of my friends and family know this and are quite understanding if they don't here from me as often as they would like.)
The SIM chip cost only 30 pesos (about seven bucks). Normally, SIM chips come without credit, but their current promotion included 20 pesos credit for voice calls (enough for 7 minutes of talking), and 200 free SMS text messages.
Six hours later, my phone still was not yet activated. I returned to the store Monday afternoon to ask what was going on. She decided the chip must be bad, gave me a second one, and assigned me a new phone number. I would then have to wait again another hour or two for the welcome message.
Monday evening, a grey window pops up, "Bienvenidos a Movistar" so I thought it was activated, but it wasn't exactly the SMS text message the young lady told me would happen. Sure enough, neither *444 nor *611 worked, giving me voice responses that my phone is not yet activated, and please wait another hour.
Tuesday morning, I am back at the Movistar outlet. The young lady was not happy to see me. She confirmed my second chip was not yet activated, but felt she did nothing wrong. She insisted the problem was either with my phone, or with the Movistar main office, but that she did everything correctly by the book.
(I realize that the sales clerks at these outlet stores don't have a Ph.D. in digital telephony or electrical engineering. I was not angry, nor trying to blame her individually for all of the problems we encountered. Getting a smartphone manufactured in South Korea for the US market to work in Argentina is challenging enough. Given all the difficulties I had last month in Europe, I know it is not limited to Latin America.)
Either way, I told her, if we can't get my phone working, I would like my 30 pesos refunded and promised she would never see me again.
Her response was classic. She would rather not-see me-again because I was delighted with the Movistar service, rather than not-see me-again because we were unable to get it working. She offered to contact the main office to figure out what was going on, and that I should come back in an hour or two. She did not want to lose my business, nor have me go to one of her two main competitors. Now that's customer service!
Tuesday afternoon, I return. She now was instructed on how to do some basic problem determination. We put my new SIM chip into a test phone, and confirmed it was not my phone having problems. The chip did not work in the test phone either. She called the main office, and they were able to activate the chip in the test phone, and then she transferred the chip back to my phone. I asked her to please call my new phone number to confirm it was now working, and I was able to send a quick text message to confirm that was also working. The *444 indcated that my balance was now down to 19.29 pesos. Apparently, it cost me 71 centavos to receive her phone call.
(Just as we were wrapping up, a young man walks in with his phone wanting a SIM chip. None of the Movistar staff spoke English, he did not speak Spanish, but luckily I speak both fluently and was able to translate.
First, we confirmed his phone was still locked, and that he would need to contact his AT&T provider to get an unlock code. He should then come back with the unlock code and his passport to then buy the chip. He didn't understand why Movistar needed his passport for a pre-paid plan, so I had to explain to him at length Argentinian law, the Denied Parties List, the ongoing war against terror and drug trafficking, and how he would have to agree to their Terms and Conditions to use their service, even if there is no ongoing monthly service contract.
He thanked me, promised to return with both his unlock code and passport, and told me my English was "quite good"!)
The next step was to activate my data plan. For this, I would need to buy additional credit. Scratch cards to add credit to your pre-paid phone, referred to locally as "Tarjeta de Recarga", come in 20 and 30-peso denomnations, but are not sold at the Movistar outlet. Instead, the young lady told me to get one at any kiosk or corner convenience store.
As it turns out, not every convenience store offers these cards for Movistar, but after a few blocks, I was able to find one that did. The process is simple: call *444, follow the Spanish-language prompts, scratch off the back of the card, and enter the 16-digit code. I bought a 20-peso card (about $4.50 USD), followed the procedure, and got my confirmation text, indicating that I qualified for 10 extra pesos as a gift for being a new customer, so my new balance was now $49.29 pesos. Woo-hoo!
Now that my phone was armed with enough credit, all I had to do was send an SMS text message containing the word "Datos" to the Movistar phone number 2345. A text message response indicated my data plan was now active. I will have to do this every other day, as the plan is 1GB per 2-day period, but I have enough credit to last me the rest of the week here. To get my phone to detect the new status, I had to turn on data packet traffic, configure and validate the Access Point Name (APN) information, then reboot the phone.
The data plan service is based on the General Packet Radio Service [GPRS] protocol. GPRS is a best-effort service, resulting in variable throughput and latency that depends on the number of other users sharing the service concurrently. Speeds are comparable to dial-up rates, 56 to 114 Kbps.
For those of us spoiled on T-Mobile's 4G speeds in the USA, GPRS is terribly slow. But that's OK. I doubt I will go over the 1GB limit. Overall, I am quite pleased with my success. My phone is fully functional for the week, and all for less than the cost of a single glass of Malbec in the Hilton lobby bar!