America’s Carriers Are Terrible. It’s Probably Your Fault.

Posted: May 11, 2013 in Column, GT, Opinion, Technology
Tags: ,

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A few days ago I landed in England and, expecting
little, slipped an old UK SIM card into my phone. I’d
bought it when living in London five years ago, and
hadn’t used it in more than a year. But to my
amazement it was still active — as was the money
I’d added to its pay-as-you-go account 16 months earlier…and then I received a friendly text message
informing me that my data costs were now £1 per
100MB. Another SMS popped up when I emerged
from the Channel Tunnel in France a few days later,
informing me it would cost me 8p to send texts and
7p per minute to receive calls. Can you imagine any of that happening with an American phone company? Or Canadian? North
American carriers generally expire pay-as-you-go
accounts after 90 days of inactivity, and it’s at best a
struggle to get them to support data at all, much less
seamlessly, much much less at that price. (Which
isn’t even that great, by global standards; in India two years ago I was charged $1 for a full gigabyte.) As for roaming, you’re very lucky to get American or
Canadian pay-as-you-go accounts that can roam
across that vast undefended border at all, and if you
do, they’ll charge the proverbial arm and a leg. That
same UK SIM card worked just fine in Kenya last
year, and as I type this I’m about to land in Turkey, where I expect to receive another text informing me
that my UK pay-as-you-go number continues to work
just fine outside the EU, albeit more expensively.
(Update: yep.) What’s wrong with this picture? Why are America and
Canada so unbelievably awful? Yeah, I’m being
anecdotal, but there is all kinds of data to support the
notion that cell service there is outlandishly
expensive compared to almost all of the rest of the
developed world. (And worse than a lot of the developing world, too.) Part of it is laissez-faire capitalism run amok. Don’t
get me wrong. I’m a staunch defender of capitalism…
that is, well-regulated capitalism. Until 2008 that was a hard row to hoe among many of my friends, but that
recent embarrassing spate of financial cataclysms
have made it much easer. Why is my UK SIM card
relatively cheap to use in France? Because EU
regulators insisted on it. Why are America’s carriers
so parasitical, predatory, gouging and user-hostile? Because they can be, which in large part means
because their regulators (including, alas, Canada’s
CRTC) don’t insist on much of anything. Oh, sorry, no, my mistake. They do insist on
perpetuating this state of affairs. Consider the recent
breathtakingly wrong decision to make it illegal under
the DMCA to unlock your phone. This was one of
those classic bureaucratic catastrophes: every
individual step that led to it doubtless made sense to the people involved, who were too close to their
system to take a step back and notice that its actual
outcome was complete insanity. If anything it should
should be illegal to lock phones, not unlock them. This is regulatory capture taken to new heights of
Stockholm-Syndrome madness. And yet. At the end of the day the true power lies not
with the carriers, but with their customers. Alas,
American and Canadian customers seem to have
been hypnotized into a kind of learned helplessness
where they just sit there and silently accept locked
phones, bloated Kafkaesque pricing plans, insane roaming charges, Android phones stuffed with
crapware, and two- or even three-year locked-in
contracts. But they don’t have to. That’s what’s so infuriating.
You too could buy an unlocked phone — an unlocked
Nexus 4, which is a terrific phone, costs all of $299!
(And I have high hopes that Google’s rumored new X
Phone initiative will be even cheaper.) You too could
switch to T-Mobile’s monthly pricing plan, or Straight Talk’s, instead of signing a contract. You’d more than
make back the upfront costs of the unlocked phone in
less than a year. And if enough people did it, the
carriers would be forced to compete on quality and
improve their pricing, rather than rely on their
customers’ passive despair. The logical conclusion is that if your phone is locked,
or if you’re on a multi-year contract, then you have no
right to complain about your terrible carrier —
because you’re part of the problem. “The fault, dear
Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we
are underlings.” In fact, you’re ruining it for the rest of us. Thanks. But it’s not too late for redemption. Just repeat after
me: “I solemnly swear that I will never buy an
unlocked phone or sign a multi-year phone contract
again.” And when your current contract expires, do
just that. Maybe, just maybe, with your help, we can
finally defeat these gargantuan economic tapeworms called AT&T, Verizon, Rogers and Bell — and finally
catch up with the civilized world.

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