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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tech Issues pt 2 (Mobile Phones)

Mobile Phones for Overseas Travel: A simple battery powered device, so essential to everyday life. You just expect them to work. When you take it overseas the main issues are your service plan, unexpected roaming charges for calls or data and you'll probably need a new charger or at least a power-adapter, but unexpected problems can come up. 

We arrived with two smart phones. We left one attached to our T-mobile account from the states, so we could continue to call state-side numbers without any tolls. T-mobile also has a very generous (unlimited data & texting) while roaming internationally so that means all the apps, maps, navigation, web browsing, etc are still working as normally in England, even if it still costs $0.25/minute to dial a UK number for voice. While we keep universal data connectivity with this phone, the roaming speed does drop to 3G speeds, which can be annoying at times. 

For the second phone, we purchased a monthly plan on Three Mobile with unlimited voice, text and generous chunk of monthly of high-speed data. This phone allows us to call and receive from all the numbers in England toll-free as much as we want, which will be important to carry on local business here. While the data connection is full speed, this phone will have expensive tolls to call USA numbers.  We set this up in the USA before departure and verified it was working before we set out. 

Independent of those mobile accounts, we also set-up a Google Voice account on each phone. The Google Voice accounts allow us to talk, text directly to any US phone numbers from wifi signals or from the mobile data service for free.  This effectively bypasses all the phone system infrastructure and sends the voice calls directly over the internet, but unlike Skype, it allows you call any US number directly even land-lines without any charges and assigns you a fixed phone number that can also receive calls from every phone and take messages.  All very handy in theory. Once again we set all this up before departure and tested everything out back at home. 

In practice, we had some serious issues that took quite a while to sort out. First, Becky's phone had the new Three-UK account and sim-card that had been activated before we left USA. Upon landing it should have just worked. Yet there was no joy.  The phone kept reporting a strong signal, but no connection to the network. In addition to no UK voice calling, we didn't have data on that phone either (without wifi). That meant we also couldn't use the Google Voice on that phone while away from wifi signals. 

On the other hand, David's phone, the one that kept the USA phone number and T-Mobile service, seemed to connect immediately upon landing.  So we at least had some slow data and USA dial-tone service. Yet, for some reason his Google Voice refused to work over here.  

So with nothing better to do during quarantine, Dave spent a day on the phone with support people. After about 3 hours on the phone with Three Mobile, who tried very diligently and patiently to try to get Becky's UK phone number working, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Their initial assessment was that for some reason the phone was still "locked" to the US carrier and wouldn't connect until it was released. Now that seemed strange to me, since we had purchased the phone outright and were never on a payment plan. (Locked phones are usually ones that are purchased through your monthly billing plan and must remain on the original carrier until fully paid-off.) Yet, when we put that UK sim-card in David's phone, it connected and worked perfectly, so this proved the sim-card was okay and that the problem was something wrong with Becky's phone (LG Aristo). 

LG Aristo -2017 (16GB Flash, 1.5GB Ram)

So my next 3 hours was on the phone with T-Mobile in the USA (where we bought the phone). They reassured me that the phone was "unlocked" and it should be working.  However, they suggested downloading a special T-Mobile Unlocking app just to be certain.  I downloaded that app and when I ran it, it produced errors, but said it had unlocked. Yet, it still wouldn't connect to the UK phone system. We continued trying and retrying this several times by uninstalling and reinstalling the app, rebooting the phone etc, all with similar results.  

Finally, they suggested I do a "factory-reset" on the phone and try again.  That process restores the phone back to the factory new state, erasing everything on the phone and resetting all customization. First I had to do a full back-up of the phone, so we wouldn't loose precious photos, videos etc. That process took nearly an hour to do, then we did the factory reset and tried everything again. Still NO JOY!  Again the support person was very patient and helpful during this time and we tried the unlock app again and it still produced errors. So this turned out to be a waste of time. The technician then made a generous offer of replacing the phone because it must be a hardware failure of some kind. The only catch was that we would have to bring the old phone in to any T-Mobile store in the USA!  

With that generous option off the table, we set out to just purchase a new mobile phone to use with the UK phone number, replacing Becky's old LG Aristo phone that was still running Android 7.0.  The phone had served well for nearly four years, but did have a small crack in the display, so it was overdue.  We replaced it with a new Moto G8, delivered by Amazon the next day, which has been working perfectly since. 

Moto G8 2020 (64GB Flash 4GB Ram)

Now back to David's trouble with Google Voice on his phone. It turned out that it even wouldn't work from WiFi over here.  (Of course it had been working from home before we left.) So what could it be?  After some googling and chasing various rabbit holes, we found that one difference between Becky's phone (which was working on Google Voice) and David's phone (which was not) was that Becky's phone had been previously disconnected from the T-Mobile (USA) phone number when we installed the UK sim-card.  But David's Google Voice settings were still connected (linked) to the USA number. Could that be it?  Were they blocking calls with Google Voice from overseas?  Yes, it seemed so. As soon as the USA number was removed from the Google Voice account, David's Google Voice started working again.   

Whew! So now that all phone services are working again, what are the lessons learned:
1. Pre-purchase an overseas sim-card before you leave, install and activate it from home to be sure it is working. Alternatively, plan to purchase one at the airport upon arrival and expect to pay about twice as much. 
2. Testing everything at home, is no assurance that things will continue to work when abroad. 
3. There may be some hardware incompatibilities with certain phones sold in the USA, that may prevent them from working abroad. 
4. Make sure you have two separate approaches to making calls, in case one fails to work as expected. 
5. Be sure to set-up Google Voice in the USA before departure, and once you verify it is working, delete the linked phone number from the account and test again.