Deciphering Tracfone (Spring, 2010)

Hello, and greetings from the Central Office! I’m bundled up, have an electric heater at my feet, and a cup of tea on my desk. Yes, folks, it’s cold and flu season, and I have one or the other of them. Maybe both. It doesn’t matter, though—the company is paying a perfect attendance bonus this month, and all I need to do is make it through at least half of my shift! Outside my Central Office, we have a coin station. It’s an old Western Electric 1D2 set, and it was configured to allow incoming calls until last week. A few months ago, it became one of the busiest coin stations in the city. A shady-looking teenager would hang out all night on Friday and Saturday taking lots of very short incoming calls. A few minutes later, a vehicle would roll into our parking lot, he’d step inside to do business, and then the young entrepreneur would return to his “office.”

An office phone... of sorts.

An office phone… of sorts.

For months, this didn’t bother me. After all, incoming calls generate revenue for the company, the business activities never caused me any trouble, and it made for interesting “service monitoring.” All of that changed last week, though, when a white Camaro pulled into my parking lot at high speed. Squealing tires, skid marks, and the stench of burnt rubber hung in the air… and then the driver did the unthinkable: he burned a donut in my parking lot! Well, that was it. The next morning, my long-neglected coin station had new signage: “OUTGOING CALLS ONLY” – and my young acquaintance moved his business to the mini-mart across the street. His new “office number” became a Tracfone, telecommunications provider to the underworld.

If you have bad credit, run a not-quite-legal business, or are an illegal immigrant, Tracfone is designed for you. No credit checks or identification is required. Better yet, the service is totally anonymous and can be paid for with cash! Owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the owner of the dominant Mexican wireline and wireless providers, Tracfone doesn’t actually operate a network in the United States. Instead, it operates as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, or MVNO, reselling service on both CDMA and GSM networks.

I was interested to learn more about this service, so I purchased a starter kit for about $70 at Wal-Mart. It came with a Samsung T301G handset, 1 year of service, 200 airtime minutes, both wall and car chargers, and a carrying case. The SIM card was pre-installed in the handset, and was designated to AT&T (a “P4” type SIM). Depending upon the market, you may receive a “P5” SIM card, which is designated to T-Mobile.

You can set up the handset either online or over the phone. I set it up online, which was easy and straightforward. To start the process, Tracfone asked for the IMEI of the handset. Next, the site asked for personal information (which isn’t validated—you can enter anything) including a home phone number, and asked if I wanted to opt in for telemarketing and SMS ads (I declined). You can then either port in an existing cellular number or have a new one issued. I chose to have a new number issued. Tracfone requested the ZIP code where I planned to use my phone the most. I entered a Seattle ZIP code and was provided a Seattle number, issued by AT&T Mobility. At that, I was instructed to power cycle the handset. It was automatically programmed over the air and loaded with 210 minutes, with an expiration date 425 days in the future. This was better than the 365 days and 200 minutes promised on the package.

Tracfone has spent a considerable amount of effort to prevent their handsets from being unlocked. This is primarily because of the heavily subsidized nature of their handsets; phones are sold well below cost and the revenue is made up through airtime sales. SIM cards are specialized. They only work on Tracfone-branded handsets loaded with Tracfone “airtime tank” firmware. Once you insert a SIM card for the first time into a Tracfone, it’s forever married to that phone and cannot be used on any other phone. Non-Tracfone SIM cards cannot be used on Tracfone handsets, either.

The firmware of the handset is also locked down, most interestingly in the dial plan. International calls can’t be direct dialed from the handset, even to Canada. Some domestic calls are also blocked even though “Nationwide Long Distance” is promised. Calls to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam are blocked, although calls are permitted to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Tracfone does not appear to block calls to high access charge areas, and I was able to complete a call to a chat line in Garrison, Utah (hosted by the independent LEC Beehive Telephone Company). AT&T is the underlying long distance carrier for domestic calls.

To some degree, I was surprised at the friendliness of Tracfone billing. Unlike AT&T Mobility, Tracfone does not bill for ring time beyond the first 30 seconds. Only calls that supervise are charged, and forward audio is even sent on calls that do not supervise. On the other hand, Tracfone bills for calls to customer service, which is unusual for a wireless provider.

While a basic WAP browser is included, you can only visit a pre-approved list of sites linked from the Tracfone portal. Attempting to browse other sites yields a “403 Forbidden” error message. It is possible to download ringtones and some basic applications sold on the Tracfone portal (although some users have worked around this limitation by sending .JAR files to themselves as Gmail attachments). Not surprisingly, Bluetooth is also locked down; only headset profiles are allowed. SMS is allowed (billing 0.3 minutes per message sent or received), but is limited in the dial plan to domestic SMS only.

With all of the efforts made in locking down the handsets and SIM cards, I was curious how much effort Tracfone made to lock down the network. As it turns out, there are a couple of glaring flaws: voicemail and international calling. Voicemail deposits are free with Tracfone, and the AT&T Mobility voicemail platform is used. This service uses a “backdoor number,” to which your handset connects when you check your voicemail. The “backdoor number” is shown briefly on your handset when you hold down the “1” key. Tracfone attempts to conceal this number in the firmware by quickly wiping the display, but by watching carefully and dialing a few times, you’ll be able to capture the number. Calling directly into this number from another phone (such as a land line) prompts you to enter your mobile phone number. You can do this, press * during the announcement, enter your password, and check your voicemail for free. International calling is also free with Tracfone, provided you use a toll-free gateway operated by Auris Technology, a VoIP provider. Calls are of acceptable quality. Most interestingly, the Auris gateway uses only the ANI of your Tracfone for validation, and billing is apparently not synchronized with the AT&T or Tracfone billing platforms. By spoofing the ANI of any Tracfone when dialing this gateway, you can make virtually unlimited long distance calls to over 60 countries.

And… pardon me for a moment. I’m nearly bent in half from coughing fits, and I’m now four hours and one minute into my shift. It’s time for me to go home, and to bring this column to a close. Have a safe and phun spring, and stay healthy!

References – Tracfone official site. – Net10, a Tracfone brand with more expensive phones and cheaper airtime. – Safelink Wireless, a Tracfone product targeted toward recipients of public assistance. – Straight Talk Wireless, a Tracfone brand sold exclusively through Wal-Mart and operating on Verizon’s CDMA platform. – Tracfone tips, tricks and codes.

Other Tracfone Brands

This column focuses on the Tracfone-branded service. For your reference, Tracfone service is marketed under four different brands:

  • Tracfone: The most popular service. Available in all 50 states, offers both GSM and CDMA service depending upon the area in which subscribed. I tested GSM service on the AT&T network. Although monthly plans are available, service is primarily sold by the minute with varying rates depending upon whether the phone subscribed offers “double minutes for life” (DMFL) and the number of minutes purchased at once. Airtime for most cards expires in 90 days, with a 1 year $100 card available. Your minutes roll over if you recharge before they expire.  In general, handsets are heavily subsidized (selling for as little as $10) but minutes are more expensive. International calling is blocked, but dial-around service is available to 60 countries at no additional cost.
  • Net10: Similar to the Tracfone product, using the same billing platform, but all minutes cost 10 cents. Handsets are more expensive and airtime expires sooner. Additionally, international calls cost an extra 5 cents per minute.
  • Safelink Wireless: Operates on the Tracfone billing platform. This service provides a free phone and 55 monthly cellular minutes free for customers who qualify for a federal LifeLine subsidy (generally welfare recipients). Available in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Straight Talk: Marketed exclusively through Wal-Mart, this service is sold with one of two monthly plans costing either $30 (1000 minutes+1000 text+30MB data) or $45 (unlimited text/talk/data). This service includes only Verizon network coverage, with no roaming allowed.

The Rapacious Prison Phone Industry (Spring, 2008)

Hello, and greetings from the Central Office! Spring has sprung here in the Pacific Northwest. Birds are singing, flowers are blossoming, and the rain is even a little warmer. At least, that’s what they tell me. It’s still noisy, dusty, and a less than comfortable 62 degrees here in my windowless conclave, so it’s been nothing but spring cleaning for me the past few weeks.

Across town, there’s a building that looks very similar to my Central Office. It’s anonymous, grey, concrete, but unlike the Central Office, it has a few slits for windows mounted high on the on the wall. Inside, it’s also noisy and dusty, just like my Central Office. And, if my county adheres to nationwide statistics, it is home to over 1 out of every 100 men in the county, unless you’re black—in which case it’s 1 out of every 9. Yes, I’m talking about the county jail, a particularly infuriating place to me because they’re served by a filthy CLEC (which prevents me from performing “service monitoring”).


Telephone service is very unique in this environment. Depending upon the provider (either the ILEC or CLEC) the line class varies, but is nearly always distinct from other service types. For example, DD8 is the most commonly used line class in AT&T territories. This line class only allows automated collect calls, complete with an announcement that the collect call is from an inmate. The RCMAC guys had a pretty big laugh when the county sheriff’s home phone was “accidentally” coded DD8 a few years ago. Word to the wise, jilting a lover who works in translations is a very bad idea!

Inmate phones are big business. In New York State alone, gross revenues exceeded $39 million between 2001 and 2002. The business model used by prison telephone service providers is borrowed from the COCOT industry. These companies, such as Global Tel*Link and Correctional Billing Services (the two largest nationwide providers) generally provide all of their equipment and technology to correctional institutions at no charge. In addition, they pay kickbacks to the prison. These can be outrageously high and are effectively a tax on inmates’ families and loved ones. For example, the New York Department of Correctional Services, until recently, received a 57.8% commission. For many years, the prison system attempted to spin this as a benefit to the inmates (rather than an arbitrary and capricious tax levied against—demographically—some of the poorest people in the state) because the money was spent on prison operational costs. California collected over $26 million in commissions in 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Global Tel*Link is one of the largest inmate phone service companies

Global Tel*Link is one of the largest inmate phone service companies

To subsidize inmate telephone sets, telephone service, and surveillance/control technologies to prisons at no charge (along with the above mentioned kickbacks), firms such as Global Tel*Link and Correctional Billing Services (CBS) charge rates that are several times the market rate for collect calls. For example, according to CBS’ tariff on file with the FCC, a one-minute collect call is billed as follows:

  • $2.49 – monthly billing fee
  • $1.49 – bill processing charge
  • $3.95 – operator service fee
  • $.89 – call charge, billed per minute
  • $.40 – voice biometrics charge, billed per call
  • $1.00 – USF administrative fee, billed per call

As a result of these high charges, the unfortunate recipient of a one-minute call from prison is charged a whopping $10.22. Despite such high charges, many consumers complain of poor customer service from inmate-focused telephone companies. For example, Global Tel*Link’s call center is located in Argentina. Representatives working there are paid approximately $350 per month for a 35 hour week (which works out to approximately $2.50 per hour). It’s a typical call center environment; poorly lit, slow computers, and inflexible policies that do not favor the consumer.

There has been an ongoing campaign to draw attention to this situation, and a pressure group called the ETC has had some recent success in New York. After the ETC Campaign successfully lobbied New York Governor Spitzer, rates for calls from state prisons were reduced to some of the lowest in the country. Calls now cost 6.8 cents per minute plus a $1.28 connection fee regardless of where in the US the call is placed (local calls are not billed at a flat rate). Prior to April of this year, calls cost 16 cents per minute with a $3 connection fee.

In a few states, inmate phone service providers charge much lower prices for collect calls. Nebraska and Missouri largely prohibit the payment of kickbacks to jails and prisons, resulting in much lower costs (as little as 60 cents flat rate for local calls in Nebraska). As these states are equally able to provide collect calling services to their inmates as their higher-priced neighbors, arguments about higher operational costs for calls from prisons seem to ring hollow. Operational costs are indeed higher in prisons, but usage is also higher (creating much higher revenues than average for a pay telephone). The customer base, after all, is captive in both a literal and figurative sense. Equipment is also more durable, and with no coins to collect, telephones must be serviced only in the event of vandalism or failure.

Telephone equipment in prisons is rapidly evolving to take advantage of the latest technologies, along with both the surveillance-friendly and litigation-heavy legal climate. Rather than typical fortress phones, specialized (and, as you might imagine, highly durable) stations are used. Most of these are customer owned; numerous companies manufacture and market inmate telephone equipment. These days, technology has evolved far beyond the blue Western Electric “charge-a-call” stations of the early 1980s. For example, Global Tel*Link, the largest player in the inmate telephone market, offers a particularly innovative inmate phone. Inmates are assigned a PIN to place calls, which must match their thumbprint (a thumbprint scanner is built into the phone). A pinhole camera is built into the phone, and every call is digitally recorded, associated with the thumbprint, and videotaped—all wrapped in a digital envelope that meets legal chain of custody requirements. Since all calls are associated with a PIN, inmate conversations can quickly be reviewed weeks or months later.

Texas Inmate Phones makes a very durable prison phone (TIP 2000 Inmate Phone aka “The Safe” officially, and perhaps “The Don’t Sue Us Phone” unofficially) that does not have a cord. The handset is recessed inside the 14 gauge steel chassis. Obviously, this phone is very uncomfortable to use because the inmate must stand right next to the wall, bend down, and tilt their head against the phone. However, this design is popular with police departments who would otherwise have to escort inmates to a telephone. As is the common practice with other inmate telephone service providers, Texas Inmate Phones installs one of these phones in each cell at no charge, subsidizing the service by billing high collect call rates. It’s virtually impossible to vandalize these phones, and there is no handset cord for inmates to use for suicide attempts.

This cord-free phone from Wintel is similar to Texas Inmate Phones' product.

A similar cord-free phone from Wintel

The specific people (and the number of people) that inmates are allowed to call depends upon the rules of the facility. For example, Oregon allows its state prison inmates to call a pre-approved list of up to 15 people. Knowing who inmates call gives valuable information to law enforcement; they can openly engage in fishing expeditions as warrants are not required to monitor inmate conversations. Additionally, pre-clearing the list prevents inmates from harassing law enforcement, judges, witnesses, jurors, and prosecutors involved with their case. Such individuals would not be (in theory, at least) approved on an inmate’s calling list.

As an inmate, you’re generally subject to a number of additional restrictions on your calling. Here are some example policies from Oregon:

  • Billing is via collect call, prepaid collect call, or debit (prepaid outgoing) account.
  • Collect calls to a particular number are subject to a credit limit until there is an established customer relationship with Qwest and/or Global Tel*Link as applicable. After the limit is reached, collect calls can no longer be made to that number by the inmate until the bill is paid.
  • As is typical, inmate must place the phone number on a list for prior approval by the department of corrections.
  • Call forwarding is not allowed, nor are three-way calls. If the inmate is discovered to be calling numbers that are forwarded or that 3-way call, calling privileges are suspended. Also, “clicks” heard on the line will result in calls disconnecting.

And, with that, it’s time to bring another issue of The Telecom Informer to a close. My phone is ringing. It’s a collect call from Pennsylvania, and I hope it isn’t Bernie S!

Links – Equitable Telephone Charges pressure campaign, leading an effort to make rates more equitable. – Global Tel*Link, largest provider of prison telephone services in the United States.h

ttp:// – Securus Technologies, parent company of Correctional Billing Services. Check out the “testimonials” videos. – Texas Inmate Phones, manufacturer of the TIP 2000.