The World of Wireless Carrier Tyranny

January 28th, 2011

When you buy a consumer electronics product from, say, a Best Buy chain store, you are not just the customer of the retailer, but of the manufacturer whose product you purchased. If your Mac fails, you will generally call Apple, or visit the Genius Bar at an Apple Store, if one is nearby (yes, I realize that feature may also come to Best Buy soon). If you purchased a Dell PC instead, that company is your first line for support, at least while the box is still under warranty.

With the exception of the iPhone, when you buy a Motorola, HTC, Samsung, or any other mobile handset from your wireless carrier, you are the carrier’s customer. You’re not the customer of any of the handset makers other than Apple. Indeed, those other handsets, regardless of operating system, will also be customized by the carrier with their own logo, special OS features, and even the range of bundled and often crappy software.

But that level of control extends beyond the early termination fee you pay if you decide to go elsewhere.

Take overseas travel. You want to take your phone beyond the borders of your home country, prepare to pay a bundle to make calls. It’s not so bad in Canada or Mexico for U.S. customers. There are reasonably affordable packages that will accommodate calls to both countries, but once you go elsewhere, the price becomes absurd for anyone without boatloads of cash if you talk beyond a few minutes.

Indeed, when I examined how much it would cost if I wanted to call my son in Spain (he lives in Madrid). The price didn’t seem that bad. AT&T World Connect costs $3.99 per month, but would let me call Grayson from my iPhone for nine cents per minute for the landline phone at his apartment, and 25 cents per minute for calls to his cell phone. Compare that to the 2.3 cents a minute on Skype if you pay as you go, or $13.99 per month for an Unlimited World plan that lets you call both landlines and mobiles in North America and 40 countries.

If you dare to depart from the confines of AT&T’s network, however, and actually travel to Spain, prepare for a huge surprise. Their $5.99 per month World Traveler plan gets you modest discounts. Calling from Spain is reduced from $1.39 to 99 cents per minute. You better make sure your credit card is loaded for a potentially huge bill when you get home, if you dare to spend any time at all placing phone calls. At least, if you’re in a Wi-Fi hotspot, Skype becomes a great alternative.

This is actually a global problem. Once you leave your carrier’s country of origin, you’d be better off renting a different phone in a specific country, with a different phone number, but you’d have do the same for each country in which you travel. Or, as I said, just talk via Skype.

Now a true affordable global roaming plan would require that the carriers sit in a large room and negotiate some sort of arrangement that would be fair to them and affordable to most customers, particularly those who need to travel frequently for business reasons. While I presume they regard exorbitant roaming charges as an important profit center, the real truth is that they’d probably earn a larger profit with a cheaper plan, one that would attract a far larger number of customers.

A related issue is whether you can have your GSM phone unlocked, swap the SIM card in the country you visit, and sign up with a local carrier for the duration of your trip; your wireless number would change, of course. However, whether or not your carrier will unlock your phone depends on the make and model. My son had no problem convincing AT&T to unlock his Motorola RAZR when he moved abroad. But if he had an iPhone, the carrier would say no way.

Sure, there are unofficial ways to jailbreak your iPhone. The process is readily found in a Google search, and it is pretty efficient, at least until Apple delivers an update that blocks unlocked phones. But it also presents a potential security problem, and is best left to power users. But what would be wrong if AT&T had a policy that would permit unlocking an iPhone temporarily, for special trips? Perhaps the lure of 99 cents per minute calling income is attractive, although a fair portion of that income would be paid back to the local carrier. Or maybe AT&T is afraid you’ll take your business to T-Mobile, even though they use a different frequency, unsupported by the current iPhone, for 3G.

I won’t even begin to cover the logic where buying 200MB of monthly bandwidth in a data plan should cost $15 per month, but you get ten times as much bandwidth (2GB) for just $10 more. Does that make sense to you? More to the point, how much are they profiting from either plan. In any case, I understand that, under some circumstances — such as threatening to leave the service — they’ll restore the former $30 unlimited plan. And if you still have the original $30 plan, as I have, it will stay in effect, at least for the foreseeable future, perhaps longer now that Verizon Wireless has entered the picture.

Yes, I realize some carriers charge less. T-Mobile and Sprint offer better pricing but, so far at least, there are no iPhones in their catalogs.

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