Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Cut your smartphone costs the dumbphone way!

Twice a year Apple releases a new smartphone. And like clockwork, my wife goes to a Docomo shop, asks about the phone and about smartphone plans, then gives it up when she realizes how much it'd cost.

This time I happened to go with her. I've had the Docomo "Xi" LTE service for some years now. But at 7500 yen a month — 90 000 yen every year — it's really too expensive, especially as I use only a fraction of the monthly 7GB I get. I decided to ask about their newer plans, see if I could lower my bill a bit.

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I could not. Their newer plans have lower data caps all right, but the monthly cost isn't much lower. I'd still pay well over 6000 yen each month for just 2-3GB. Now, virtual carriers — phone companies that lease network space from Docomo especially — have surged in popularity lately. If you only use data they can be very compelling. IIJmio offers 3GB for only 900 yen a month. 3GB is more than I use every month, what with wifi available at home, work and also often at cafes and other places.

But I need voice calling. My wife and I rely heavily on free calls to each other. We call each other over a hundred times each month, often several minutes each time. With a typical virtual carrier voice plan I'd end up saving nothing. The unlimited family calls are not optional.

As I looked around the Docomo shop, an idea struck me. I asked the clerk at the store, then verified everything in detail at home. A few days later I went to Bic Camera in Namba and came home with this:

The Sharp SH-07F. Neat color. Sturdy and reliable.
Say hi to the Sharp SH-07F. A flip-phone. A garakei. A FOMA handset. A. Dumb. Phone. I got it with my new Docomo contract. No data plan, no email, no i-Mode, no nothing; just a plain FOMA voice-only contract.

Have I gone into early senility? Have I perhaps turned hipster? Will I start wearing bow ties and go back to typewriters? Not at all. What caught my eye was just how cheap a FOMA voice-only contract is. I realized I could keep just my phone number with Docomo, then use a data-only sim with my smartphone.

Voice-only FOMA plans are really cheap: 970 yen per month — 1050 yen with billing charges — gives you phone service and unlimited free calls between family members. The IIJmio voice plan adds about 600 yen a month for voice, so the FOMA plan is only 400 yen more. Even with the IIJmio family discount, the FOMA plan pays for itself if I call my wife for as little as 20 minutes a month, and we use many times that amount.

So how to do this? In brief you cancel your existing smartphone Docomo contract, apply for a voice-only FOMA contract, get yourself a flip-phone, and get a separate IIJmio/Bic Camera data-only SIM contract. I'll summarise these points below.

Capybara cares not for the stresses of a digital
existence. Capybara prefers a relaxed analog lifestyle.
First, you will want to do this at Bic Camera or a similar store, not a Docomo shop. The handsets are cheaper than at the mobile shops, and you get their 10% point discount on everything as well.

Get out of your contract: 

I had a Docomo contract, but I had bought my phone separately (overseas), so I had no handset contract with them. Had I had to buy off my phone from them, things would have gotten expensive very fast. I've also had my contract for more than 8 years so I didn't have to pay a cancellation charge.

If you don't have a Docomo contract, but decide you want to use Docomo for voice, you can MNP your number to them and possibly save more money than I did by getting an almost 100% rebate on the handset.

Get the flip phone: 

I got the Sharp above. It's new, it's cheap and it's pretty good. In a Docomo shop the phone sells for 34k yen. At Bic it's listed at 31k, or 27k yen with the 10% point discount. If you don't have a FOMA charger you need to get one as well, as it's not included in the box. They cost a few hundred yen if you need a new one.

But you don't have to get a new phone; Plenty of shops in Den-den town and Akihabara sell used and new old-stock FOMA handsets cheaply. Another option is a dual-SIM smartphone, where you can use a separate voice SIM and data SIM at once. Bic sells a few unlocked models for about the same price as the flip-phone.

Get the FOMA contract: 

The longest part of the process, it took me about 45 minutes in total. A total of 3000 yen in handling charges, and the old and new contract overlapped for one month (effectively adding another 2000 yen). But it was mostly straightforward(1). The final monthly cost of the FOMA voice-only plan with free family calls is 1050 yen, all included.

Is Crab a lowly crustacean or a superhero in disguise?
His friends debate endlessly. Only Crab knows for sure.

Get the Bic SIM contract:

Bic SIM is IIJmio under another name. You need a Japanese credit/debit card in order to apply. The actual application is all online; you can't complete the application in store. You can either order a SIM card when you apply, or you can buy the SIM card at Bic beforehand, then apply at home.

The application and SIM card costs a total of 3100 yen. You get a flat envelope with a SIM card and instructions. Once you get home, you pick a plan, enter the SIM number information and register. A few minutes after registration, the SIM card comes alive.

The data plans are priced at 300 yen per 1GB/month, with plans at 3GB, 5GB and 10GB for 900, 1500 and 3000 yen per month. You can add voice for another 600 yen per month, but then the application process is more involved, and as I wrote above, actually more expensive for us.

When you choose a plan, focus on your average need, not your peaks. Unused data rolls over to the next month, and the data is used up in order from oldest to newest, so in practice it carries over longer. If you don't use your limit on average, you'll eventually have twice your paid capacity available each month.

I don't use anywhere near 3GB a normal month, so for November I have 3GB + 2.4GB from the previous month, for a total of 5.4GB. I'm unlikely to use up those 2.4GB, so from next month I'll have a full 6GB available if I suddenly need to tether my computer or something like that. Very nice.

Also, if you need extra you can buy more capacity ("coupons") online or through prepaid cards, good for up to three months. And you still have a low-speed (200kbit/s) connection even if you use up all your capacity.

One tip: The registration site does not accept a space in the first-name field of the credit card holder. If you, like me, use your first and middle name on your card, that's a problem. But it seems that while you can use a middle name on your credit card, the standard only recognizes the first name. Enter just your first and last name and the site and the card company will both accept it.

If you don't have a smartphone, Bic and IIJmio sells a range of decent unlocked Android phones. A modern mid-range device is plenty good enough today. And some of those phones are dual-SIM capable: you could skip the flip-phone, use the Docomo and IIJmio SIMs in the same smartphone, and have both voice and data, just like with a regular Docomo smartphone plan, but without the smartphone plan prices.

Frog has no time for your antics. Frog expects another
fly any minute now. So many flies, so little time.

All in all, it took about two hours to complete the switch. The cost:

One-time costs:

Phone:27 000 yen
Docomo charges: 3000 yen
IIJmio charges: 3100 yen
Total one-time cost:  34 000 yen

Monthly costs:

Previous Plan:7500 yen/month
Cheapest similar Plan: ~6500 yen/month
IIJmio Data: 900+38 = 938 yen/month
Docomo FOMA: 934+2+114 = 1050 yen/month
Total monthly cost: 1988 yen/month

I save 4500-5500 yen every month. That is less than one-third of what I used to pay — for almost exact same service, on the exact same physical network.

I repay the cost of switching in 7 months, and save a total of 75 000-100 000 yen for the two-year duration of the voice contract. I can think of a lot of things I'd rather do with 100k yen than giving it to Docomo for no good reason. A trip to Bali? A new computer? A lifetime supply of toilet paper(2)? The possibilities are endless!

Dog realizes he's living a dog's life. And life for Dog is good.
Dog is content, although if you happened to have a tasty
snack it would really hit the spot right about now.

About that Phone

Finally, a few words about the new flip-phone itself. It's been ten years since I last bought a flip-phone, and technological progress has improved them along with everything else. This is a better phone than any other I've had.

The Sharp is light, but it feels solid and well built. I'm not worried about dropping it. It's "water and dust resistant", which means I'm not concerned about rain, but I'd certainly not rinse it under the tap or anything. The keyboard is better than any on-screen keyboard, but the direction pad feels a little imprecise, so you can press it on the edge and not get a solid response. The shutter/Silent-mode button on the edge is a bit too responsive, on the other hand; I've accidentally set the phone to silent mode a couple of times and missed a call as a result.

The software is standard FOMA. You need to spend half an hour cleaning it up, figure out how to reduce power use, turn off notifications, disable extra software and get rid of animated "concierge" characters, but once done it's a decently usable interface. I still want to disable the "silent mode" side button, and perhaps set a one-button call to my wife but it's mostly OK now.

When I use it, what hits me is just how good a phone this is. The sound is loud, clear and free of distortion. Your voice also comes through to the other side much clearer than with a smartphone. The phone is very comfortable to hold for long periods, and you can hold it with your shoulder for temporary "hands-free" use, something you just can't with a smartphone. The speaker phone function is also good, clear and distortion-free.

Battery technology has improved the past decade and it shows. I tested how long I could go without recharging. With an average of three calls a day and no travel, I managed a full 12 days of use. On a business trip — where train travel and frequent calls home sucks a lot of battery power — a four-day trip was no problem, but I wouldn't want to push it much beyond that.

I'm happy with this phone. It's a better phone than the smartphone was, and the sturdiness and long battery life makes for a very dependable device. I worry less about my smartphone battery now, since I know I always have a way to get in touch. This is a cheaper setup, and a more reliable one. Win-win.

Shortly after I switched, my wife actually bought an IIJmio SIM and an unlocked Android Huawei phone from Bic Camera for herself. It seems a decent phone, she's quite happy with it, and it sees a lot more use than her tablet nowadays. She keeps her FOMA handset so now we both have voice on Docomo and data on IIJmio.

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#1 Even after I refused all data service twice, and even confirmed there was no data service of any kind in my new contract, Docomo still added a monthly 500 yen charge for a "U standard plan" that is only usable with a smartphone. I had to visit the store, paper contract in hand, and have them strike the thing from my plan and repay the money. Be careful and confirm everything afterwards whenever you deal with Docomo.

#2 A 12-pack toilet paper can be had for about 340 yen. 100000/340*12 = 3529 rolls. A roll might last one person about 7 days (see here and here), so 3529*7/365 = 68 years. Assuming you're old enough to appreciate a longwinded post about smartphone plans, that should cover your expected lifetime quite nicely.

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