Orange crush

I have an Android phone: a Nexus One, straight from Google. It arrived independent of any phone company deals, which I thought would make it easy to use with whatever carrier I engaged when I got to France, where I would be spending the next five weeks.

We arrived in Paris on Sunday the 13th of June. On Monday we went to some phone stores and got SIMs for the three phones we brought with us. The other two were a Nokia E71 and a Nokia N900 (which is really a handheld computer, but will take a SIM and work as a phone). The E71 took a pre-paid SIM from SFR, and the N900 took one from Orange. Both worked fine. The Android was more complicated, because I wanted data working on it. We didn’t do data deals for the other two — at least not this time around — but I like the Nexus One and thought it would be cool to have one phone that would let us surf the Web, use maps, have fun with Layar and other neat stuff.

So I paid 40€ to Orange (which I had been told had the best deals) for a SIM and a plan that included telephony and 450Mb of data. It never worked. In fact, the phone part only worked for a short time. After a few days I started getting messages saying I needed to “recharge” the account with fresh money because I was out.

Looking for clues about what was going on, I went to four different Orange stores, plus other stores that work with Orange, and never got a clear reason why the thing failed, beyond “you must have used too much data.” At the fouth store, last weekend in Strasbourg, a nice young guy who spoke good English (a help since my French is worse than minimal) told me that the only sensible way to do data was to buy a long-term plan. Otherwise, “just don’t use data.” Why? “It’s too expensive.” What’s the price? He couldn’t tell me.

So I put another 35€ on the phone, so at least we could use telephony.Meanwhile I had long since turned off any setting on the phone that looked like it used data.

That worked briefly. Within another few hours the phone could only take calls but not make them. This time there were not any messages about recharging.

Now I’m in the UK, where I read that Orange claims to have the best coverage. And, indeed, my iPhone says Orange has a good signal. The iPhone — my main phone in the U.S. — works fine here, but calls are expensive, which is why I like to have a local phone of some kind. The Android works on wi-fi, but can’t seem to do telephony at all. When I call a number, I get a beep and the whole phone function pops off, returning the phone to a no-app-running state. When I call the number I get told in French to leave a message.

Since we have a 3G iPad arriving at the place in France one of these days (it was held up by French customs and other mix-ups), I was also interested in a data plan for that one. Turns out that the relatively simple plan that Apple has with AT&T in the U.S. is matched by a similar one with Orange. Unfortunately, I also need to take out a French bank account and produce other forms of documentation, before I can get the deal. So I won’t bother.

At this point, frankly, I’m kinda beyond caring. I don’t know why the phone companies want to make life so damn hard for customers — as well as for themselves. My current theory is that they’re all Enrons of a sort: outfits that make their offerings so complicated that only they can understand them — and even they aren’t that good at it.

So I just keep using my American iPhone, fortified with a $20-something/month add-on data plan that gives me 20Mb/month of data to fudge with. I use it in emergencies, like when I need to find my way from a tube stop to an address. I set usage to zero at the start of the month and see where I am. So far in June I’ve used 2.5Mb. But I’m still afraid to use more here on the last day of the month. Hey, why take chances?


  1. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    Could it be that your Android device was checking for email every 5 minutes or so and incurring not a data usage charge but a data connection charge that eventually ate through your entire balance? That’s how some folks have been socked with obscene roaming bills. $.15 everytime the device checks email, and the device is checking every 60 seconds or so.

    FWIW I’m now looking at buying an unlocked ‘mifi’ like device for my travels and throwing in pay as you go data-only SIM cards to handle device usage, laptop usage, and Skype calls via iPhone, iPad. We’ll see how that works.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe you’re right.

    In any case, I’m way turned off to 3G at this point, except for MyFi type devices. Even there sucky things happen. For example, when I moved to a new laptop, my old Sprint data card no longer worked: no slot for it. So Sprint activated a USB device for me. The problem is, I can’t share this one, using it as a bridge so my computer becomes a MyFi-like base station. I could with the old thing, not with the new. The UI also requires a Sprint app that’s flaky. The old thing was very plug-and-play. A big value-subtract. Also a time-suck at a Sprint store, getting it to work.

    I think the bottom line is that phone companies, on the whole, just freaking hate the Net. They like billing for every damn thing they can, so they create as may billing paths as they can, ususally at maximal inconvenience to the customer. The idea of a wide-open worldwide system of best-effort paths for packets is anathema to them. Simple as that.

    And they’re the ones both they and the government want to build out the future of the Net. Lovely.

  3. Gustave Stresen-Reuter’s avatar

    I feel your pain, but only partially since I live in Europe and have a bank account, but every time I’m confronted with buying a new phone, all of these issues float to the surface like some other substance we’re all so familiar with and I just end up biting the bullet and limiting my phone use (for data in particular)… This is why text messaging and “one-ringers” (call, but don’t wait for the other party to answer) are so big here.

  4. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    I didn’t try getting data when I was in Mali on my unlocked original iPhone (although I did get the EDGE symbol in cities), but the Orange pay-as-you go SIM (and recharge cards) I bought from random street vendors kinda worked. I could send and received texts (10 CFA each, I think), but I could only make calls, not receive them (although I could call my Orange voicemail). I don’t know how much of that was my iPhone hardware or that I got a sketchy used SIM. My sister (who is fluent in French) spent some time on customer service for me, but we couldn’t get it working, although it worked well enough for the brief trip.

    My brief experience with the role of mobile networks in West Africa is fascinating, since for the most part there isn’t a wired infrastructure. In the town markets there will be several stalls with a guy running a generator, a power strip, and all of the common Nokia wall warts, and he’ll charge you for an hour of charging while you do your shopping. Receiving calls and texts is free, and incomplete calls cost nothing, so a common practice when your balance is low is to “ping” your friend: call, hang up with the first ring, which tells them to call you back since you’re out of minutes.

  5. Maarten’s avatar

    aaargh darn, you could use layar!


    seriously, this is an issue. I always use my local sim while abroad. apart from the cost i mostly don’t get past gprs/edge speeds as i am visiting on the network. Thats even more annoying! This always happens to me in the states.

    The world is not flat for mobile subscriptions

  6. Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)’s avatar

    Hi Doc!

    Getting a good set up in France when visiting (sans local bank acct.) is a royal pain. You may want to look into plans from the delightful Irish entrepreneur, Pat Phelan. If you need help with it ping @patphelan – tell him @AAinslie sent you.

    Trust you and yours are enjoying your stay!

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Okay, with the help of smarter geeks than I, we located a culprit: the Twitter app, which goes through the API to pull down stuff constantly.

    To be fair to Android, each time you download and install an app, it comes with a series of warnings about what exposures might come with it.

    The problem here is that managing one’s smartphone — at least outside one’s own country — requires a high degree of vigilance, at least if you’re doing anything with data.

    The whole experience is a measure of how we’re still dealing with data on a phone system rather than telephony on a data system.

    To both Apple’s and Google’s credit, they seem to be trhing to move the world from the former to the latter. But they’ve got a long way to go.

    Meanwhile I’ve learned a 75€ lesson. And I still don’t have a useful phone.

    FWIW, I uninstalled the Twitter app.

  8. Julian Gay’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    To be honest, when I’m in France I switch my iPhone to ‘Airplane mode’ and rely on wi-fi to pull down emails etc. Otherwise the data roaming charges are huge. I have an old Nokia with a local, prepaid Orange SIM for regular calls.

    The culture around free internet access is different over there, even hotels charge for web access. I think McDonald’s has free wifi, though haven’t tried it myself…

  9. Benoit Cazenave’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    Reminds me of my trip to San Francisco where I had a similar experience with an AT&T SIM card for my iPhone. Went through $40 of voice using 2 Mb of data because they hadn’t activated my data plan (100 Mb for $25) ! I also had to download a profile file from some website to get the correct APN settings.

    Needless to say the guy at the AT&T told me it wouldn’t work (prepaid cards aren’t suppose to work on iPhones) but after a second try and correctly activating the data plan it worked like a charm.

    I have to agree that the cellular phone companies make it real hard to have cheap data roaming and you Americans are lucky to have one huge nation, for us Europeans living near borders, a small trip can mean a huge bill if you don’t pay attention to your phone settings !

    I live in Strasbourg, and I hope you otherwise enjoyed your stay here !

  10. Pat Phelan’s avatar

    its tough going out there
    Doc, I sent you an email, we are happy to help and thanks to Alexander for the recommendation

  11. Geoff’s avatar

    Try the T mobile PAYG £10 a month deal unlimited data, its what I use on my unlocked iPhone.
    Maybe there is a market for loaning out SIMs 🙂
    If I can help further my number is 0797 1428715
    Soon be birthday time again 🙂

  12. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    It was crazy difficult to get an Airtel SIM in India. I had to have two passport-sized photographs, a photocopy of my passport, and a statement from my hotel saying that theirs was my local address. Once I got the SIM, though, it worked a champ. Ran through $10 worth of data in about four days. Quite a bargain relative to the hotel that charges me $10/night.

  13. Brian Benz’s avatar

    Don’t know if this helps, but a kid in a phone shop in Australia gave me a good tip – buying a pay-as-you-go phone bundled with three months service (About $70 USD for the phone and three months service – a SIM card with no minutes was $125), activating the new phone, then just taking the working, tested SIM card out and putting it in my regular phone. Worked great in Australia and Asia while I was there, and I got a bonus backup world phone (could be unlocked after 3 months of service). But there I could pay with a foreign credit card.

    Europe has always been a special case because the governments need to get their massive vig from the phone companies who pass the charges on to callers in nefarious ways…And all parties (except the customer) work hard to keep the system that way.

    Also, imagine all the shenanigans in Telecom in the USA, then multiply that by 30 governments and more languages….If only there was some way to, maybe, um, get the major European countries under some kind of unified structure something to smooth this sort of thing out…Nah, I’m dreaming. 🙂

    FYI, another option – you can sign up then un-sign up at will for global data plans from AT&T. They used to be unlimited, but now are metered…..Good news is that I think you can sign up and cancel online, from anywhere…

  14. Cyrus Farivar’s avatar


    I think I know what your problem was. My wife and I lived in Lyon, France from Oct 2008 until May 2009 and we both had Orange prepaid accounts. I lost 100€ in a matter of days because my unlocked first-gen iPhone was pulling down mail. For some inexplicable reason, Orange treats “unlimited data” to mean “unlimited Internet” (but not Mail, presumably measured through the email port). So I stopped using my iPhone’s email client and instead used the web Gmail interface and all was right with the world. But I learned this the hard way.

    Let me know if I can help, or if I can help with French. I’m not a native speaker, but am fluent. 🙂

    Bonne chance!

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Brian. I have the AT&T thing, but the sums of data are so low that it only makes sense for emergencies.

    HSBC has one work-around for one of the boundary issues: keep >£100k in deposits and they’ll make sure you appear to have a local bank account in any country. Still, you’ll need separate 3G deals in all those countries.


  16. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Brian. I have the AT&T thing, but the sums of data are so low that it only makes sense for emergencies.

    HSBC has one work-around for one of the boundary issues: keep >£100k in deposits and they’ll make sure you appear to have a local bank account in any country. You’ll need separate 3G deals in all those countries, but at least you have help getting over the “local bank required” hurdle.

    Still, crazy shit.

  17. Buzz Bruggeman’s avatar


    If you can get the N1 to upgrade to Froyo 2.2, you should should be able to use it as a WiFi hotspot for your ThinkPad. I read most of the comments, and not sure if you have gotten that far.

    Works fine for me here in SEA on T-Mobile, no clue if you can replicate it in Paris.

    Did you see that Doc’s coming back for year 3 of his contract? And the Celts had a great draft, so who knows…


  18. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    fwiw that HSBC $100k minimum can be met by a variety of items, such as rolling over a 401k to HSBC. You don’t have to just park $100k in the bank. It’s actually a pretty good setup if you are traveling internationally all the time.

    I looked at opening bank accounts in other countries pretty much for the sole purpose of getting monthly contracts on phones in those countries. It was just such a pain (and in some places, an impossibility) that I switched most of my international phone usage to Skype and the net, made even easier now that the smartphones support Skype In and Skype Out. Of course I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t go anywhere without his laptop.

  19. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Buzz.


    I had a contract? Who knew?


  20. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Andrew. Good to know about HSBC. Now to come up with the $99,999 I need…

    3G is a freaking scam. It’s livid proof that the phone companies see the Net at best as another billing trap. The captive regulators are complicit, of course, and probably clueless about it.

    So here we are, on laptops in France, using Skype.

    You in Hong Kong now? If so, happy 4th!

  21. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    Yea, in Hong Kong now. Writing a blog post on broadband options over here but taking longer than I hoped. 1,000mbps for $25 US a month, with caveats…oh so many caveats…

    Enjoy your holiday.

  22. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Are you outside the Great Firewall? Or is it unsafe to answer? 🙂

  23. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    Yes we are outside the Great Firewall in China but stuck behind the “Tiny Straw”–i.e. the limited transpacific connectivity between Hong Kong and the USA. Can be a bit frustrating at times.

    By the way, your blog is ‘approved’ by the Great Firewall, in case you were curious. You can check the status of a website behind the great firewall of China here:

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