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i-Sim: a quirky way to get Internet in Asia

I started writing this while sitting on a very comfortable bed in a fancy hotel in Hong Kong. I spent the weekend in the SAR in the middle of a business trip to Shanghai, thanks to the multi-enty visa I managed to be given this time.

Whith a not quite relaxing trip to Pudong Airport in Shanghai (all my fault!), and the flight being delayed for well over an hour due to traffic control (weather forced a number of other flights late, even though by the time it was our turn, the weather was vastly fine), I got to the airport in a bit of a short temper (even by my own standards). The hotel was supposed to have a mobile wi-fi for me, but as I arrived almost at midnight, and the train requiring me to change stations, and not sure how long it would run, I was ready to spend more money for a Uber. That meant getting an Internet connection before getting to the hotel.

I’m usually okay with using portable hotspots (like the one I’m reverse engineering) but the problem here is that you have to rent one, and that means binging it back before flying out, which is a hassle. Of all the booth around me when I got in the arrivals’ hall, only one advertised SIM cards, so I headed towards that. After a good ten minutes waiting with the clerk explaining a guy how the thing worked, I gave up and proceeded to one of the desks that rented hotspots, but the card payment happens online, and it ended up blocked on Verified by VISA – and while I could have looked up the VBV password on LastPass, it seemed too sketchy. So I headed back to the SIM booth, as they had no customers.

What it turned out to be, is a bit quirky: they sold i-Sim data cards. The quirk is that while you buy a SIM and a 7- or 30-days plan, and you get 200 MB of data. Except, you actually have nearly unlimited data during the period, just as long as you click on some ads in their app.

It sounds like a bit of a scam, doesn’t it? It definitely reminded me of the Pay to surf stuff that was going on back in the ‘90s, and that, I’ll admit, at the time got me too. But it turned out to be working quite fine in Hong Kong, for me. Let me describe the experience.

The feature that made me more interested than wary about this, despite the bell I kept hearing, was that the service is available in Singapore, in addition to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Korea. This was relevant because after my trip to Shanghai, I headed to Singapore for SREcon Asia & Australia, and I was already planning to get a SIM there too, after all I am an Ingress player.

Since it’s just two days here, and then a few more the week after the next in Singapore, a single 7-days subscription wouldn’t have helped much, so I originally intended to get the 30-days one. The price was reasonable, HK$129 for the 30-days, particularly when you consider that the mobile hotspot rent would be HK$50/day with a minimum of four days. As it happens, the clerk was as tired as me, and by mistake activated a single 7-day pass on the SIM, which was supposed to be HK$59 (down from HK$69 regular price). When he realised the mistake, he offered to make it up for me by giving me the pre-order price (HK$49), and sell me two SIMs, the second one not activated yet, but with an already attached 7-day plan, which turned ended up being quite the deal for me. For those wondering, it’s just a bit less of €12.

For the i-Sim to be enabled, you have to activate it with their app. I checked the app permission both when I installed and when it requested extra, and it seems to be sane. It does ask for phone identity, but works fine without. It asks for camera permissions if you want to scan the barcode rather than typing the long SIM identifier by hand (particularly useful if you don’t know the manufacturer code by heart like the clerk did, except the gray barcode is effectively unreadable by the phone’s camera so I ended up having to type it anyway.

In the app, beside having a way to check how much data you used, there are a number of hexagons for different “areas” of advertisement. F&B (food and beverage) is the one the clerk recommended with the most ads, but I checked the others out and I even found an ads for the Intercontinental Hotel. Each time you select one of the ads with the i-Sim green logo in the bottom corner (not all of them do), a countdown indicator appears on the top-right. Only close the advertisement once it completes, and i-Sim will give you another 10 or 20MB credit (appears to depend on advertiser). It behaves like so many mobile games nowadays, where you can get more in-game currencies if you watch ads to completion.

As far as I can tell, the ads are not specific to the location you run them in, but they appear to be always Hong Kong’s. They also appear to have improved them during my week in China, as they went from being simply static images my first time, to being webviews pointing to the OpenRice or Facebook pages of the place, at least for most restaurants. I think this may be a bit buggy as now the counter appears and completes before the webview even finishes to load in some cases, so I assume they’ll have to find a combined option at some point.

On the technical side, the SIM uses the network of Three HK, which is ironic given my recent spat with Three Ireland, but it also means it appears to cover the tiny country very well. It does have its own APN settings though. The clerk insisted on setting them up himself, similarly to how the one in Shanghai did, although this time I managed to watch him doing so. He also explained to me how to set them again if I need for the new card, although I kept telling him I knew that. In Singapore it uses StarHub, and also seems to have good coverage around the city.

As a reference, the service will activate on a new card only once the card registers on the network. Which means you can’t start “topping up” the data until you actually land where the card will work, which is what I was hoping on doing while in China, heading to Singapore. Despite that the procedure was quite simple: switch the card number from the app, confirm you want to deactivate the old card, then once on the flight switch the SIM cards around, reset the APN to the NTT one, and that’s it. It’ll take a while to register on the network the first time, but for me it registered fine just after immigration clearance and before picking up the luggage.

Both the app, and the card, appear to have worked fine for me. I have used to “top up” over a GB of data, even though I clearly didn’t need that much, and it used less than 50MB itself. Given you can also use it over WiFi, it makes it fairly convenient. The ads I’ve seen are all in Chinese, which means they vastly fly over my head, and I only see the drawings, although there is the occasional image that includes English text to invite you to try some restaurant or other. There appears to have been a promotion with IHG as well, although it got me to an error page when I clicked on it, too bad.

So how does this fare, money for service? I’m happy with it as it is. I’m not sure if the prices of connectivity in Hong Kong or Singapore make this more expensive, but €6 for a week of nearly limitless connectivity is more than reasonable in my experience. The fact that you can actually not bother topping up the 200MB until you actually need to, means the ads are not even in your way.

Do they track you? Maybe, but how I wouldn’t know. Yes I had to sign up for an account, but they don’t appear to ask you for much information. And even if they were to do traffic profiling, they would see very little as obviously all (or nearly all) my connections are encrypted already (Chrome’s Data Saver takes care of the random HTTP link that still go around).

The only thing that makes me sad is that while they say the SIM is reusable, it only is reusable for the 90 days after you activated your last plan. I don’t think I’ll be back to Asia within three months, because among other things I’m mostly booked solid for that time frame, which makes moot this particular point. I got lucky to have gone to HK before Singapore, and I may be able to hand one of the two SIMs to one of my colleagues, if they allow me to hand the SIM to a different account.

I wonder if they are profitable, and if they’ll stay in business or not. For this trip, it looks like it was a good deal for me. Update 2023-08-23: on the verge of another trip to Hong Kong, I checked – they didn’t stay in business, unfortunately.

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