Mobile Internet Access in Argentina

4 Jan ’11

If you’ve been following my twitter or flickr feeds you know that I’ve been in Argentina for a few days. It’s my first trip since I bought an unlocked iPhone 4 and I was curious to see how easy it would be for a non-native person to understand the local system, and how expensive mobile data rates would be. Answers: pretty easy, and super cheap (compared to Canadian prices – more on that below).

The Locked Phone

If you travel a lot, you’re familiar with the absurd pricing of mobile data when you buy your foreign data from your Canadian wireless company. You’re almost always forced to do this, of course, because your phone is generally locked to your provider’s SIM. I’ve never understood this – when you commit to a provider’s data plan to get the provider’s phone subsidy, you hand over payment info and sign a contract obligating you to pay a particular monthly charge. That payment obligation continues even if you swap out your old SIM for a new provider’s. Why then is the SIM lock necessary?

(By way of example, Rogers has recently announced that once your contract is up, you can get out of your SIM lock. But of course, they make you pay for your freedom – pay to be released from a SIM lock that they shouldn’t be entitled to force on you in the first place.)

One of the more nefarious aspects of the SIM lock is that it ties you to your telco’s frequently extortionate pricing for roaming data. Here’s a simple example: here in Argentina, I pay Movistar 10 argentinian pesos – about $2.50 – for 1 GB of data that I have 48 hours to use. If I don’t use it all, I lose it and I have to pay another 10 pesos for another 1 GB of data over another 48 hours. So I could buy a month’s worth for 150 pesos, or about $35. That’s 1 GB every 2 days, or about 15 GB a month – for $35. That’s a lot of data – I can essentially do anything I want to for the month, without worrying about usage, for about $2.33 per GB. Now, that price is a temporary promotion – when I first arrived my 10 pesos bought me 1GB for *24* hours. But when I bought it, I was given 50% more data just because I was awesome. So, there is competitive pricing at work, and promotions abound.

What would that cost me if I bought it from my provider, Rogers, as part of a roaming package? The details are here. Taking the mid-priced $100 pack, that’s $4 per MB – not GB, but MB – with 25MB included for the month – or as I learned in a recent trip to NY, about a day and a half of moderate iPhone travel usage (mail, twitter, some photos uploaded, some Google Maps use). I’m not sure what Rogers think people do with their mobile devices when they travel, if that’s the allotment they think is reasonable. (My suspicion is that they know very well what people do – this is why we so often hear horror stories about people returning from trips to hair raising mobile bills.)

So, to sum up, Movistar offers me $35 for 15GB for a month, and Rogers offers to resell me that at $100 for 25MB. Movistar’s GB rate is $2.33 (say, $5 a GB assuming worst case and no promotions) and Rogers resells that to me at an astronomical (in a sane world, we would call that usurious and anti-competitive) $4,000 per GB. That’s one heck of a margin. And that’s one reason why your SIM is locked – to force you to buy that data from Rogers at that price, rather than allow you to buy it from a local provider at a lower price.

Free Your Phone, Free Your Mind (and Your Wallet)

If your phone is unlocked, and you happen to find yourself in Argentina, you can walk into any Movistar, Claro or Personal outlet and buy a prepaid SIM for about 20 pesos, or $4. Micro-SIMs haven’t really penetrated here yet, so if you have an iPhone 4 or other micro-SIM device you’ll need to bring a SIM cutter or cut it yourself. There is a ton of info online about how to do that.

(Note that SIMs in Argentina cover voice within the particular province. If you take the SIM outside of the province, your voice rates will be higher, so consider getting a separate SIM card whenever you go to a new province. I never use voice on my mobile, and the data rates are the same wherever you go here, so I haven’t bothered.)

You’ll now need to go one to one of the bazillion kiosks around Argentina that allow you to recharge your prepaid SIM, and buy some credits. The kiosks have signs telling you that they provide this service. The signs usually have the logo of one or more of the providers. You’ll need to provide the cel number of the new SIM, your provider name, and the $ you want to buy. If your Spanish is like mine, babies faint whenever I open my mouth, but some combination of pointing and grunting will pretty quickly get you what you need. They then enter this info into their system, and your SIM is instantly credited. (You’ll see text messages on your phone telling you this – do not mistake these messages for warnings that your shoes need to be mowed – they almost certainly do not.)

The next step is to order your data. To do this on Movistar I texted “datos” to 2345. Within a second or two I received a Spanish message that my request was pending, and moments later confirmation that I had 1 GB of data to use within 48 hours. Check the Movistar (for example) site or the usual forums for up-to-the-minute info on any other promotions, or if your Spanish is good, call their support (Movistar is *611) and ask. (On a couple of occasions, this was unsuccessful until about 10 minutes after I’d purchased the credits).

(Note that if you keep using the internet after your 48 hours (or whatever it is in your case) is up, your remaining credits are used very quickly – so make sure that you order more data, if you need it, before that happens.)

Once you have the SIM cut and installed, and your data ordered install the new APN info so your phone can get internet access with the new SIM.

And that’s it. Happy surfing!

Quick update: I’ve been dazzled by how popular open wifi is in Argentina, even in small towns. Bars, restaurants, malls – lots of places, and often unexpected places, offer free, abundant wifi. Funny, because in Canada, where our data rates are wildly expensive, free open wifi is not nearly as easy to find.

Update: David Weinberger on his own experiences.

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