Phones: The Shipping Wars

I have had a love/hate relationship with my cellular provider for some time. Long enough ago that it could well be the beginning, I was with AT&T, but their customer service irked me fiercely. Between one thing and another, I hadn’t taken the plunge to a different service, but then my son accidentally bought a Tracfone phone that was locked to that service. You see, we had been buying cheap prepaid phones to use with our AT&T sim cards, but he didn’t realize that some of them used different background networks.

Well, he just got another phone, and the Tracfone device lay around our house for a while, seeking purpose. That purpose arrived when AT&T started disabling our older devices. I activated the Tracfone for my wife, ported the number over, and it was smooth sailing.

However, there were storms on the horizon. Tracfone’s customer service rivals AT&T for horror, and there was one complication after another. Finally, they switched off my phone — the one AT&T had sent me when they were shutting down my older phone.

Well, this got me interested in options again, and I found Reach Mobile. I haven’t used them long enough to know if I like them, but they have been marginally more communicative than Tracfone, and they don’t insist on calling back on an unrelated number “within 15 minutes” which is always longer and then making me wait on hold after they call me.

So, to transfer your number from one phone service to another, you need four pieces of information.

  1. The name of the company you’re transferring from. In my case, this was Tracfone.
  2. The account number. This is trickier, especially if you have multiple phones with a vendor. For Tracfone, it’s the last 15 digits of your SIM card number, which you can find with a magnifying glass on the back of your SIM card if you pull it out of the phone.
  3. The PIN code. This was a real stumper. After wasting time with the chat support at Tracfone, waiting for someone to call me back, waiting on hold for the person who called me to pick up, I finally found that I could have gotten it by myself. To get the Number Transfer Pin for a Tracfone, text NTP to 611611 on the phone that has the number you’re transferring from.
  4. The billing zip code.

Well, once I had located these pieces of information, I was set. There was one small snag: since I had activated my SIM card with Reach Mobile, they were unable to change the number on it. Fortunately, they send two SIM cards when you sign up, so I was able to use the second card to receive my old number.

Well, I’m still waiting for the transfer to go through. Reach suggested contacting Tracfone to ask them to hurry it up, but I think I’d rather carry around two phones for a bit longer.

Using Cloud Storage

Okay, so we really need to answer the question, “Should you use cloud storage?” before we get into the weeds on this one.

Simply put, cloud storage is file server space that’s not on your computer. More generally, it is usually owned by someone else, and is physically separate from where you are.

Because the “cloud” is not typically owned by you, you need to be aware that what you store there might be examined by whoever is providing the storage, that they may change their policies and force you to find other solutions, they might be raided by law enforcement in such a way that your (innocent) files are swept up with those of the target, etc. In other words, don’t blindly trust a cloud.

That said, there are good reasons to use cloud storage. One thing that makes it “cloud” is the ease of access. You can access your files on a number of different devices, and changes in one place are quickly reflected elsewhere. (This can be a problem, too, if things change in a bad way, but there are ways to mitigate that, too.)

For as much of a “cloud skeptic” as I am, I have accounts with several cloud providers. I’m going to briefly recount which ones, why, and then discuss how.

The oldest cloud account I have is with Apple’s iCloud service. I got it when it was a free .Mac account, kept paying for it for quite a while, and now have stopped paying for, and using, it. I don’t use a Mac very much at all, and my Macs tend to be well behind the current OS and hardware. Because of that, Apple won’t let me use two-factor authentication, and iCloud is pretty useless without it. So, I don’t even try to access my iCloud storage anymore, and I long since took my data out of it. I still have the account because it’s connected to my Apple ID, which is connected to my Apple Developer ID, etc.

The second oldest account I have is with Dropbox. Dropbox was one of the first, and I was always able to function within the limits of the free account. I don’t use a cloud to back up most of my data (unless you count a local cloud, which we’ll talk about later) partly because of cost and partly because of time. It takes a long time to upload or download terabytes of data. Dropbox worked well, and I used it for a number of programs on the Mac that were able to use Dropbox for sync. (This was largely during the period when you had to pay for .Mac to use the cloud storage for sync, and I wasn’t paying.)

I mostly stopped using Dropbox a few years ago when they started limiting free accounts to using three devices. The primary purpose for my Dropbox account was to sync my contacts and passwords using a third party whose interest was not in my contacts and passwords. To do that, it needed to sync with close to a dozen devices, so three was not going to cut it. I still have the account, and it can be useful for transferring a file to someone, but I use it only slightly more than the iCloud account.

Now it starts to get hard to say what I got next. It was probably Koofr. I was looking for a privacy-supporting cloud service, and heard about Koofr. It’s hosted in the EU, so it has all the benefits and problems associated with that. I get 10GB free, which isn’t nothing, but is a lot less than some of my folders. It has a Linux app, so that’s nice. I don’t really know why I haven’t used it more.

Box is another of these services that I tried to get the free offer, and wasn’t impressed enough to really do more with. It is something I’ll be using with work, so I may find myself using it more in the future.

OneDrive (Microsoft) and Google Drive (guess who) are two more cloud drives that I only use for work. I hate both of those companies, and don’t trust them in any way, so I share as little of my information with them as possible.

pCloud is my new favorite. There are several reasons for this. First, it is privacy-oriented, being based in Switzerland. Second, Linux is a first-class citizen, with a proper app. (To be fair, Dropbox also has a full Linux app. OneDrive and Google Drive don’t, and iCloud isn’t even accessible using other means.) Second, although it cost me money, I was able to buy 2TB of cloud storage with a lifetime lease. Of course, that’s the lifetime of that lease, and it’s very possible that they will discontinue this service, or be bought out, or something at some point. However, the perpetual license makes it a fixed cost rather than a recurring one, and that’s something I like. They offer encryption as an add-on, which I haven’t purchased yet, but it’s available in the same way with a one-time payment. It syncs nicely with my computer and phone, and the storage is big enough to be useful, especially when considering things like file versioning, which it supports.

OwnCloud/NextCloud are two versions of the same open source software, with NextCloud being a fork of OwnCloud. What is nice about this software is that it’s not necessarily on someone else’s hardware. While I run an instance of one of these on my shared-host web server (that I don’t control) it is trivial to install it on XigmaNAS or HomeAssistant (or many similar open source servers) and use as a cloud within your home. While firewalls and network security are outside the scope of this article, with proper precautions (like a VPN) you could even have a home-based server that you can access while away from home.

Accessing “Unsupported” Clouds

So, how can I access OneDrive, Google Drive, and Box from my Linux computer, since I both need these for work and they don’t support my operating system?

Well, for Box, the answer is deceptive. John Green wrote an article about mounting a Box drive in Ubuntu, and although one of the comments from 2021 says that Box stopped supporting WEBDAV, I find that (in 2022) it still works just fine. Since the credentials are stored in my Gnome Credentials, I’m not sure how I would mount a second Box account using this method.

However, the product ExpanDrive is another solution. This was something I acquired long, long ago in a Mac bundle, and never really got it to do what I needed it to.

ExpanDrive options

It supports a ridiculous number of cloud providers, both free and costly, and it allows me to mount those volumes seamlessly on my Linux computer. It flaked out a certain bit when I was trying to mount two different Box accounts, but that’s why I went looking for, and found, John Green’s solution. Using ExpanDrive I can easily access all of the cloud accounts that don’t have a nice Linux client.

Update 14 April 2022: Another contender in the cloud storage arena appears to be internxt. At this point, I don’t know anything about them except that they advertise on Brave, and they emphasize zero-knowledge file storage for anonymity and security. They offer 10GB on the free plan, which is certainly enough to try them out. If you do, please let me know in the comments.