Gray Flannel Dwarf


Mobile phone service is nothing but a shell game.

I’ve been looking, on and off, at changing our mobile phone service. I don’t really have that much of a problem with our current one, except for the fact that we no longer live in the area for which our phones have area codes. AT&T won’t let us change those unless we get off our current plan and choose a new one.

And therein lays the rub.

We’ve had our current plan for something like… four years. With a corporate discount, we pay around 90 bucks a month (including taxes) for two phones, 1200 minutes a month, pay-as-you-go web and messaging. We also have a long-since-extinct “North America Package” which gives us free LD to, and coverage in, Canada.

One would think that, several years later, the greater proliferation and uptake of mobile services would lower the prices for everyone, right? Not the case.

Playing with options six ways from sunday on the ATT website, or anywhere else, I can’t find anything that turns out to be any cheaper than what I am currently paying — nevermind the fact that we have the North America package — no longer offered by ATT Wireless, I mean, Cingular, I mean, ATT… and nevermind the fact that we have 7PM nights standard — again, no longer standard, but rather I’d have to pay nearly $20/mo more for this.

Part of me is stymied, but none of me is at all surprised, I guess, especially when one looks at how the industry has, once again, consolidated over the years.

Early on in my mobile phone adventures — probably about five to six years ago — I had a Nextel phone. I could take it to Canada, whereupon it would be usable like a local (Canadian) phone on the Telus network. A while back I went into a Sprint/Nextel store and inquired about it. Sure enough, one can’t do this anymore.

Fast forward a few years, to ATT. Four-ish years ago when I was looking to get a new plan, Cingular was about to consume ATT Wireless. Despite the assurances by the salesmen that the new Cingular would continue to offer something similar to the North America package, I didn’t believe it for a minute and thus signed up for a new contract w/ the NA package while it still existed.

Turned out the be a good decision in the end, I guess.

Now, obviously, the “Canadian” bits of this entry aren’t going to be of much interest to most people — but they’re not intended to be the main concern — they’re symptoms of the larger issue at hand. That I can have a plan from several years ago, with a la carte features, and in fact more expensive ones — I am still paying $20/mo for an extra line these days when the industry standard seems to be $10 — seems startlingly out of whack. Costs haven’t really shifted though — it’s a shell game. Mobile providers have transferred the costs from the a la carte tray straight to the core services.

I’m sure there are some out there who are wondering why I’m complaining. “You should be happy that you got, what you got, when you did — rather than whine about it now while the rest of us have to deal with what’s offered”. To those who may not see the forest for the trees, I can only suggest that you take a look at the hands you’ve been dealt, and wonder who’s stacking the cards.

…and why do I get the nagging (and perhaps overly-paranoid) feeling that this is going to filter up to ATT, whereupon having been a customer for over five years, I find my service contract terminated?

Tags: , , , , , , — cswiii @ 11:53 am


Talkin’ Ma Bell Merger Monopoly Blues

We all know that years ago, when Ma Bell was all big and powerful, she was chopped up by the authorities in the name of offering better service and choice to the American consumer. Over the last 5 years, however, we’ve seen mergers roll across the industry, especially in the new mobile phone market. Although initially and occasionally there have been small echoes of cynicism and flares ups of “renewed monopoly” talks, these have generally been hushed or ignored. “This will bring more choice to Americans!”, supporters and corporate noise boxes say.

Well, let’s take a look at some things I’ve noticed…

* In 2000, I had a Nextel phone. I have family in Canada, go there on occasion, and back then, I could take my Nextel phone on my trips to Canada, whereupon I could use my phone locally there. In other words, I could call any number in Canada locally, receive calls from Canadian numbers, and generally use my phone w/o roaming there. I still got charged if I wanted to call the US, but hey — this was nice.
* Later on, in about 2002, I switched over to AT&T Wireless. They had a plan which allowed me to pay an extra $20/mo to have unlimited calling to, and roaming in, Canada. Progress! Later on, when I switched from their TDMA network to their GSM network, it cost me even less — $9/mo! Terrific!!

But then…

* 2004: Cingular completes its acquisition of AT&T Wireless.

* 2005: Not to be outdone, Sprint swallows up Nextel.

Now, I switched over to AT&T Wireless’ GSM plan in late 2004, in part because I wanted to guarantee locked-in availability of their North American Package, because I didn’t quite trust the plentiful assurances by sales reps in Northern Virginia that something similar would exist from the new company.

Sure enough… as the months passed, the North America package remained — but only for former AT&T Wireless customers… and now it’s gone for good, at least for anyone who wants to get it now.

Well, I’m grandfathered in, I still have the package, but herein exists the quandary — and the large realisation of what the reduction of competition has done. After moving to NC, and having a mere three months left on our existing plan, we have been looking at trying to get new NC telephone numbers. To do this requires a change to our plan, and my initial suspicions were confirmed: My plan has been “frozen”, i.e., if I want to make any changes, I need to be moved over to a fully-Cingular plan. Good-bye, N.A. package

Sure enough, no other companies offer something similar. My only option from Cingular? Pay an extra $3/mo or whatever to have “reduced price international calling” from Canada and gee.. It’ll only cost me 59 cents/minute to call there. Of course, roaming is a completely different story…
So looking around, I remember what Nextel was able to do for me back in 2000. Even if I couldn’t get toll-free calling to Canada, I could still use my phone while there, so this would at least be a marginally more useful option, all things equal — and they were, for the most part, minutes and costs between all the plans were basically the same.

There’s only one thing… Sprint’s Nextel no longer offers this service, either. Nextel roaming in Canada is now 20 cents/minute.

The old mantra about Microsoft was “Embrace, extend, extinguish”. Glad to see that the mergers of today’s telecommunications companies are allowing them to be that much more efficient and bypass that middle step. Hell, Sprint and Nextel systems still can’t interface with each other on one network — although once again today, I got assurances from their sales reps that it was on the way… sometime next year.

We’ve got an ever more globalised world, “globalisation” seems to be on the lips of everyone, and the most ardent capitalists seem to think that it’ll be better for everyone the world over. So why are we going backwards in North American telephony? For that matter, what’s going to happen when AT&T completes its digestion of Bellsouth? One can only guess… and while others might have had problems with BellSouth, I’ve never had issue one with my POTS or DSL. I can only expect that things will once again get worse.