No on-device data plan activation on the 4G iPad

The new iPad (3rd generation, with 4G cellular data) suffered a peculiar downgrade: it is no longer possible to sign up for a cellular data plan on the device. (In Canada at least.) Instead, one must go through a tortuous process on a carrier website, copying and triple-checking long numbers and so on. Jim Dalyrmple describes a fucked-up data plan sign-up with Rogers. And it took me — seriously — almost an hour with a blueshirt at Vancouver’s Pacific Centre Apple Store to get activated with Bell.

Myself, I felt more bemused than outraged: can this really be how every iPad is getting hooked up to the internets? How absurdly clunky!

Back in the good old days (of carrier settings updates)

The way this used to work was that the iPad would detect the presence of a new SIM card, and download a “carrier settings update” — a small file that basically just a tiny customized extension to iOS to allow account management for a specific carrier. Pretty painless. In particular, the update was the source of a “View Account” button in the cellular data section of the preferences.

Although I had gone through all of this two years ago when I got my original iPad, I really had no idea what was (or was not) going on when it failed to manifest on the new iPad. All I knew was that the SIM card that was part of my order was simply being ignored by the iPad. All I had was no cellular data, and no apparent way, and a dim recollection that I’d activated right on the original iPad. Stumped!

Apple cares

Because I’m old school and I kind of hate going to the Apple Store, I called AppleCare. My problem was met with total puzzlement, general agreement with me, and quick escalation to a specialist. Because they care.

I got on well with the “specialist,” and troubleshat the problem in a very collaborative, chatty way — a couple old-timer Mac users, speaking the same language, hammering on a curious little problem. Together we arrived at the same conclusion: clearly the iPad was failing to recognize the SIM card and install carrier settings, the necessary prerequisite for on-device activation. Time to consult an engineer!

The engineer came back with a definitive, unexplained answer that baffled us both: the new iPad doesn’t do on-device activation.

What the fuck?

Why would this feature go away, and why wouldn’t it be more common knowledge? Why would Apple send me a SIM card but not the slightest indication that it would be ignored by my new iPad? Why wouldn’t an AppleCare specialist know about this? How could this lack of on-device activation be both true and news-to-us? I’ve read multiple reviews of the iPad, and literally dozens of other articles about the technological minutiae of this device … but heard nothing about this?

Very strange. I told the specialist that I would, tentatively, accept the strange ruling of the engineer, but that I had a hunch that if I took the problem to an actual Apple store, they would find it quite amusing and tell me, “Of course you do on-device activation! We’d be drowning in manual activations if you couldn’t!”

Wouldn’t they?

Okay, so they are drowning in manual activations

I was informed of this soon after arrival. Sort of. The first blueshirt I talked to, the greeter guy, was in full agreement with me that on-device activation is a normal expectation and should be easy peasy, and I was all poised to call my AppleCare specialist back and be all like, “Ha! I knew it! I’ve wasted a fucktonne of time, but at least I’m right!”

But then the plot twisted out of my grip. Moments later another blueshirt was all like, “Nope, no dice — we’re doing all of them, or sending people away to sign up on their own.”

So engineers and blue shirts agree: you cannot do on-device data plan activation on the new iPad.

“Isn’t this kind of strange and unfortunate?” I asked the blueshirt. “Why would we lose on-device activation? It’s so simple! One little carrier settings file! Aren’t you encountering an awful lot of customers who expect to be able to do this?”

He agreed it was both strange and unfortunate. He had no idea why the feature disappeared. He said that not all that many people seemed to be puzzled by it. Only so many people get the 4G iPads in the first place, and only a few hit the limitation by trying to activate on-device on their own. It’s the first iPad for many people, so they have no expectation of on-device activation. For the upgraders, either they didn’t have a 3G iPad before or, if they did, they didn’t know enough to miss on-device activation with the upgrade.

You know data plan activation is hard when even a genius has trouble with it

But then it took, I shit you not, a full hour to get me activated with Bell Canada. It was downright tedious. Granted, it would have gone much faster if something unusual hadn’t gone wrong — but it sure seemed to be a fragile, fussy process, way more detailed than you’re typical online purchase. And this was with the help of someone who’d done many, many activations.

It all just seems so strange! All told, it took me a few hours worth of emails, calls, and trips to get 4G happening. Arg. If anyone had said “it just works!” to me at the end of that activation hour, they would have gotten punched.

But, now I have LTE cellular data on my iPad now, and it sure screams. I immediately went out and enjoyed some wifi-like zippyness in the park. Whee. The future.