Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Getting Down to the Cellular Level

My cell phone is dying. Part of me is glad because I've hated this particular phone—the Motorola Razr—almost from the moment I got it. On the positive side, it's extremely thin and lightweight so it fits very comfortably in the front pocket of all my pants. On the negative side, it's extremely thin and lightweight so it doesn't fit at all comfortably in my hand when dialing or talking. Plus, the buttons are close together and not raised, so I'm always pushing two at a time; the hinge on the cover is tight and if you don't open it far enough when you answer a call, it shuts again (hanging up on whomever was calling); the speakerphone button is on the side of the cover and I'm alway hitting it when I try to open it (because I'm trying to get the thing open enough, quickly); and there's no way to get photos off the phone other than to e-mail them to yourself (for which you must pay, of course). Now, as of today, the screen has gone—all I have is a white light eminating from the thing. So other than answering the phone and making calls (assuming I know the phone number or can voice dial the person), the thing useless.

Fortunately, my "New Every Two" agreement ends next week, so I can replace it for free (which is how I got this one in the first place). Catherine and I are with Verizon and, for the most part, we've been pretty happy with our service over the last dozen years. These last couple of months, however, in addition to the slow death of my hated phone, we've begun to have problems making and receiving calls—among the worst places being, unfortunately, at our home and at my day job. It's not a dead zone issue (to quote the latest Verizon commercials): one call or text will go through just fine, the next one fails and we haven't moved an inch.

I'm actually not kvetching just for the sake of kvetching—I do have a point to make. But first, a little more kvetching... Because I'm dissatisfied with Verizon at the moment, I started looking around for a new carrier... Let the nightmares begin! I've been interested in switching to a smartphone (for really important reasons, like being able to access imdb or wikipedia during one of those "what's the name of that actor/author/scientist/politician...?" discussions at a restaurant), but on every website I tried, the $60 family plan somehow becomes a $140 a month plan once you add on the "services" (without which the smartphone isn't smart at all, of course). Yeah, I think I can wait until I get home to find out whether it was Alexander Hamilton who shot Aaron Burr or vice versa.*

I looked into the WiFi phone plans from t-Mobile, since the majority of our calls would be made at home or at my office, where there are wireless routers, making those calls free, right? Well, not so fast—actually, t-Mobile charges $10 per month/per line for that service on top of the monthly service charge. Once you add in that fee, the plan is actually $20 more per month than I'm already paying. Since Catherine and I seldom go over our monthly allotment of minutes, and almost never to the tune of $20 when we do go over, this plan is useless to us. 

So finding nothing affordable on any of the other sites, I looked into changing our Verizon plan... and I suddenly discover that the other carriers are the economical choices! The cheapest option available to me on Verizon—keep our current plan but change to a Blackberry with the least expensive data plan—would swell our monthly bill by $30 per month (each, if Catherine wanted a Blackberry, too). Needless to say, I'm just going to let them replace my old phone next week....

So why are cell phone plans so complicated? Why aren't there packages at a few price levels that include the services that one would reasonably expect to be included in the package? What all the carriers call a Basic Family Plan doesn't include text messaging—in what world (other than one without teenagers) is that basic? What if realtors operated the same way: "Will you be wanting a roof on your new home? I imagine you'd like floors, too—they're especially useful for the second story. Oh, and we should talk stairs—we can offer you a beautiful set that go about halfway up (after that, it's just 1.5¢ per step per trip); or for a slightly larger monthly fee, we can give you unlimited usage."

Of course, I think the answer to all my questions is "because they can." The industry has lobbyists who persuade Congress to pass laws on its behalf—laws that most of us never hear about or would even recognize the implications of them if we did. I understand that setting up and maintaining a wireless network is expensive—that's why all of the small cellular companies that existed a few years ago have been folded into the major carriers, and why we're not going to see any significant new competition for them again anytime soon. But there were times, as I was working out the various potential packages, when the whole thing smacked of price-fixing: there was never any really significant difference in my monthly fee, regardless of the carrier (other than Verizon being the most expensive... but not by that much). I suppose it's possible that the cost of using the cellular system is just the cost—that there's no difference in price because their expenses and profits are the same... but I'm skeptical. I'm sure I've said it here before (because I say it often), but I believe that Corporate America serves only itself, not the public—we're just one of the more annoying aspects of business.

Perhaps I'm just becoming a cranky old man... 

*You oughta know this... so I'm going to make you click a link if you don't have the answer.

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