AT&T bricks iPhones in vacation suspend.
November 28, 2008 6:53 AM   Subscribe

AT&T bricks legit, in-contract iPhones during vacation suspend (!). Workarounds? (I don't have an iPhone -- just researching pros and cons now -- so I can't test anything myself.)

So I'm still in decision-making mode but I'm not looking for general iPhone critiques or "get an X instead!" answers. I know the iPhone's limitations and its many reported problems, and I also know it has enough clear unique advantages for me (including some third-party software & utilities) that it's probably my best option despite its cons.

Right now I'm just thinking about possible solutions for this near-dealbreaker:
Like other carriers, AT&T offers vacation suspend (temporarily suspend your plan, paying $10/mo, for up to six months at a time), but unlike other carriers, they brick the iPhone when it's in vacation suspend (I confirmed this with two AT&T customer service reps). Without a full active service plan, it won't even function as a PDA or iPod, much less as a wifi tablet.

I'm not willing to pay AT&T a full iPhone service rate, during the three-or-so months I'll be outside the U.S. every year, just to keep using my phone's basic functions. (FYI, I don't care about having a handheld device for voice calls outside the U.S.; Skype on my laptop works well enough. I do care about having a handheld wifi tablet outside the U.S. And I wouldn't want to try unlocking and just using T-Mo; AT&T fits me better in general.)

So here are my first thoughts re. solutions. How do these sound, and what am I not thinking of?

1) If possible: find a way to prevent the bricking. This depends on how AT&T implements it.

2) If possible: temporarily unlock the iPhone during the times when I'm outside the U.S. and need to be in vacation suspend; then restore to the current/legit Apple OS when I return to the U.S. and want to end vacation suspend. (I haven't researched this enough to know whether it would work smoothly. FYI, AT&T auto-reactivates your full plan [takes your iPhone out of vacation suspend] if they detect the iPhone looking for service on any of their networks or partner networks. I'm not clear on whether temp unlocking of an already in-contract phone would prevent that.)

3) Buy a Touch to use instead of my iPhone during my travel blocks, then sell it used after I return to the U.S., and consider the difference between purchase and sale price as my rental cost to have a working almost-iPhone with me on my travels. (And of course that difference would be WAY less than the monthly amount I'd spend if I didn't put my iPhone into vacation suspend.)

4) Just buy a Touch, period. (No iPhone.) Both in the U.S. and abroad, use the Touch as my PDA / iPod / wifi tablet -- and in the U.S., also carry a separate cell phone for voice calls and texting.
- Disadvantages: some obvious usability/convenience issues. Cost/bulk/weight issues (especially since the second device would have to be smartphoneish enough to be usable for texting). No camera on Touch.
- Advantages: I can use the third-party software I care about, without trying to work around AT&T's shenanigans. Touch usage doesn't drain second device's battery, and vice versa.
posted by kalapierson to Technology (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I just wanted to throw one more disadvantage out there that you aren't specifically listing in 4): With the iPhone, the 9 months that you spend in the states give you not only a wifi device, but also a 3g/edge device. As an iPhone user, I was surprised how difficult it is to find usable wifi connections while on-the-go (nothing to do with any lack of capability of the iPhone, but more a sign that wifi users are becoming more educated on security issues).

3) Also, if Apple releases a new iPod touch while you're on a travel block, the price you'll get for a used, old model one upon return will be significantly lower than the price you paid. It'll still most likely be savings in terms of monetary value, once resold, but then there's also the time and effort you spend in finding a buyer.

Regarding 1 and 2, I'm completely clueless on how this would work. You might want to look into whether removing or replacing the SIM card prevents the identification of your phone to AT&T networks, but I honestly have no idea whether this would work.
posted by jangie at 7:56 AM on November 28, 2008

I would recommend a Nokia N810 tablet, runs a version of Linux and has GPS and in the newer version Wi-Max built-in. It really is a great device and is very customizable with different applications.
posted by kasperj74 at 8:08 AM on November 28, 2008

So, for three months you either have to pay the full rate to still be able to use your iPhone as a tablet, whatever, but not as a phone, or you pay $10 a month and leave it in your sock drawer.

The question is then: is it worth it to you have that extra non-phone functionality to pay the full fees, or can you live without and save the money?

At the end of the year are you going to look back and say, "Darn it, I really wish I had that cash I spent on three months of service which I sort of used, but not really..."

Just get the iPhone already and stop over thinking it. In the grand scheme of things it's a very minor purchase.
posted by wfrgms at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2008

And also "brick" isn't the proper nomenclature here. "Bricking" is when you fry your sexy gadget during an unsupported modification while simultaneously voiding your warranty, and leaving you with an expensive ... brick. It sounds like what AT&T does is some type of device deactivation.
posted by wfrgms at 8:21 AM on November 28, 2008

Just want to clarify something. I haven't checked in the last couple of days, but last time I heard, you still couldn't 'unlock' a 3G iPhone. You can 'jailbreak' it, allowing other non-app-store apps to run, but unlocking it for use on other networks isn't yet an option. (although from what I understand, they're close... just not quite there yet.)
posted by cgg at 8:31 AM on November 28, 2008

Could you buy an iPhone where consumer protection laws force them to unlock the phone for a fee?
posted by jeffburdges at 8:53 AM on November 28, 2008

Good thought, jeffburdges -- that can be done in a few countries (hence the healthy ebay trade in legit unlocked 3Gs from Australia sold to Americans for MUCH cash), but so far I haven't found an affordable way.

Thanks, cgg -- I should've mentioned my first travel block won't be til July of next year, by which time it's possible there'll be an unlock solution. This is advance research because you have to have been on an AT&T plan for six months in order to start vacation suspend.

wfrgms: bricking's probably an appropriate way to think of ATT's unprecedented approach here... which is part of why I care. (I respect if you don't, but I do. :))
posted by kalapierson at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2008 says you can pseudo-unlock the iPhone using some SIM card piggyback chip. You might find that they can't disable your phone if you go abroad, buy & piggyback some local SIM, and only then suspend your iPhone. Ask the Brazilian guys who make the piggyback chip about this option.

p.s. I find the iPhone's lack of cut & paste the deal breaker myself. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 9:06 AM on November 28, 2008

Go to an apple store; make an appointment with a genius. They'll know the answer to this..

You might be able to pull the sim while you're in suspension - if that works, it'll work as a touch until you get back from 'vacation' mode.

Alternatively, yeah, buy the unlocked sim adapter.
posted by filmgeek at 10:06 AM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Buy an unlocked 2g iPhone on eBay. You get all the features you want, no contract, bricking, locking, or general shenanigans.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:56 AM on November 28, 2008

I wouldn't know how AT&T would be capable of remotely bricking an iPhone. Sounds like a very slippery slope. My guess is that they would remove the device's serial number from the list of authorised handsets for activation with iTunes. That means that as long as you do not need to restore it, it will keep functioning as PDA and music player.

If they do, you can always activate it using PwnageTool. Note that this will not allow it to function with SIM cards from other networks than AT&T/Cingular's in the US.

Also, it appears that the trick with the SIM card adapter has ceased to work with the recently released version 2.2 of its operating system.

And should AT&T indeed have some nefarious "kill" command they can send, taking out the SIM card temporarily or engaging airplane mode (you can still activate WiFi) should keep any such command from reaching your device. But again, I doubt such a thing exists. If, as you state, AT&T auto-reactivate your account when they detect SIM card activity, doing both would be the smart thing to do.
posted by LanTao at 1:37 PM on November 28, 2008

LanTao, AT&T (or possibly Apple) do seem to have a pretty versatile set of backdoor commands they're willing to use on iPhones (e.g.).

Re “bricking”, IMHO that's only an appropriate term if the iphone is completely unresponsive— which it clearly isn't, if it's able to respond to the reactivate command once you un-suspend your account.
posted by hattifattener at 2:07 PM on November 28, 2008

FWIW, I still haven't gotten access to anyone at AT&T who's willing to definitively talk about this issue. Three first-level AT&T reps have now told me this is the case (that the iPhone is definitely not usable in ANY manner -- no local apps, no wifi -- during vacation suspend). Several Apple Store employees have told me it doesn't "sound like" this "could" be the case but wouldn't confirm because, they say, they have no more access to AT&T info or tech support than anybody off the street (?). They just refer me to AT&T...
posted by kalapierson at 5:59 PM on January 3, 2009

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