The No Data Journey

I have been on a quest to set up a cell phone with a no data plan.  First, to be entirely clear I have 2 cell phones, one is provided by work and they happily allow me to use it for personal use if needed.  So if I am really in a pinch I can use that data and I am very thankful for that option. I also like the fact that I can leave that cell phone at home and reduce my distractions so I can spend time on important things like interacting with family.

So I have been trying really hard to live up to that however there are some useful features that I like that keep getting in the way.  The first was MMS, which I blogged about in a previous article. This was super interesting to find out about as things have changed in the industry and this is no longer provided on top of the SMS protocol.  The short story is you need to keep your cell phone data on to use MMS.

The issue with this requirement is that you are no longer able to completely block data on your cell phone.  Most telcos exclude the usage from your limits because of the grandfathered case however the fact that you need to enable data on your cell phone does make you run the risk of overages.  My local telco, TELUS, has a feature on their website that allows you to block data and allow only this protocol to go through their systems. I assume that other telephone companies have done something similar.

Moving on I have a feature that I really like on my phone: visual voicemail.  In my previous blog post, I talked about how TELUS provided me with data to accommodate that feature.  This was super helpful until I ran out of data for that month in a week. Apparently, I had a number of background processes that were using data and I may also have not been very careful with my usage.  I had to use their online feature to disable the data and I am happy they had it as my overages would have been significant, I figure at the burn rate I was on I need about 2.5 GB of data per month. This also was a huge step back for me mentally because I don’t want data on that phone.

I found out that there was another downside to blocking data this way, my visual voicemail was not being downloaded!  I found this out when my plan switched over for the month and TELUS automatically unblocked my data. The voicemails that hadn’t been delivered were downloaded to my phone, some as far as 2 weeks in the past.  There was a message from my doctor on one of the messages and I am thankful that they had also followed up by email.

When I discovered the issue with the data blocker service I called TELUS to see if we could find a workaround.  One of the calls was with my service representative Kevin. He was able to teach me a bit more of the Johnny Cash remake of Hurt which was great.  We also talked a bit about musical notes, apparently, in Spanish cultures, they use do-re-mi to talk about notes (i.e. C-D-E, etc), discovered that a Dminor with no E is actually a Dsus2, it was a great talk and good to connect again.  Kevin wasn’t able to solve my technical issue however and he put me in touch with a support person.

Through a couple of more calls, I spoke with Fatima and Brad.  When I talked to them I found out that what seems to happen for visual voice mail is a request is sent over your data plan directly to apple.  It’s a pretty simple diagram honestly but what we came up with was this1TELUS did in NO way provide me with detailed information about how this works and it’s obviously more complicated and missing routes that would exclude data limits on TELUS’s end. I’ve also taken a future look at message storage on Apple’s servers which I talk about later on.:

Visual Voicemail Diagram.png

We talked a bit more and theorized that this must be some sort of known protocol and that they probably had exclusions for some of the communication in their system as visual voicemail does not seem to count towards my data limit.  With a bit more talk we came up with an idea that they might be able to piggyback off of the modifications they already made in their network to provide MMS over data/ wifi. The upshot for the business, of course, is if they figure this out they can sell visual voicemail, a $5 feature, to consumers that do not have (or do not want) a data plan.  

I also took the opportunity to talk about where data was going and mentioned Chatr’s Fast/ Slow data plan and unlimited data.  I mentioned that Freedom mobile was also doing something similar and that it might be a good idea for TELUS to look into for the typical user. I didn’t mention that other people have also started to put the pieces together about 5G and the direction of data plans but I’ll mention it again the next time I talk to them.

Anyway, TELUS seemed happy and I was satisfied that I had empowered someone to look into how difficult it might be to provide this.  Given I have a vested interest in this I do hope they succeed.  In the meantime, I look forward to chatting with Kevin about guitar when I follow up and hopefully getting some more guitar tips.  Don’t worry Kris, I’ll still see you at the next lesson!

My journey didn’t end with that call though as it really got me thinking about a few things.  First, if the request is initiated from Apples’ servers is there some way to store visual voicemail on their servers so it’s available to me on multiple products?  If so why can’t Apple provide the visual voicemail service over wifi/ data like they do with iMessage?

I gave Apple a call to chat about that, it was off hours though so I wasn’t able to get much traction on the technical details there.  I did leave a message and hope that they will follow up with me so I can at least understand it a bit better.

Speculating a bit though I think it might be simply because they don’t have a good business case yet to do the necessary hardening of the service.  Opening a service up to the internet you no longer have a secure channel and the attack vector is larger.  Doing the necessary steps to ensure the protocol is secure takes effort and money.  You also have to add in costs for secure transfer of data and extra monitoring of the public endpoint, extra support calls that your telephone company is currently handling, etc.  It’s not cheap.

That being said I think that the desire to have my iPad, iPhone, MacBook pro getting my latest visual voicemail isn’t something unique to me.  I also think that there is a good business reason from Apple’s point of view and telephone companies to make this work even if you just consider the support costs and PR from the internet complaints about how difficult it is to get a good implementation of this service.  I submitted a feature request and asked if they could put me in touch with someone so I could understand the protocol and limitations a bit more.  I hope that they end up pursuing this because it would be pure awesome.

It’s been a really fun few days and I hope that at some point I can return this free 1GB of data to TELUS and continue my journey to be data free!

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