Phone usage billing over the years: revisiting “A truly embarrassing truth”

Around eight years ago, back in this blog’s infancy, I wrote a post about wireless phone billing practices entitled “A truly embarrassing truth for wireless phone companies”. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I would go back and revisit the original article.

Text messaging hasn’t really gone anywhere in eight years. Despite the rise of smartphones and that feature phones (sometimes called “flip phones” or “dumb phones”) are now the exception instead of the rule as they were about a decade ago, a lot of people still use text messages to communicate. The billing has changed too: most if not all plans in the current era are keyed around smartphone data usage, with the voice minutes and messaging thrown in for free.

(And a quick aside here: unfortunately, the quality of voice calls over the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has changed to match that “thrown in for free” bit. Early in the wired phone network’s history, dropped and misrouted calls, particularly long distance calls, happened on occasion. By the 1990s, though, such occurrences were unacceptable and had been engineered out of existence. I still consider it unacceptable in 2016 for calls over the PSTN to be dropped or fade out. It’s one thing for calls over an unregulated, strictly VoIP network to have this happen (Facebook Messenger, Skype,, etc), but the PSTN is simply supposed to be more reliable than that.)

The only phones where voice minutes and message aren’t “thrown in for free” as said above, are prepaid pay-as-you-go plans. Even on these, text messages have dropped back down to the slightly more reasonable level of 10 cents per message, even though a one minute phone call costs the same (at least on T-Mobile, the last provider I checked).

Thankfully, rates have more or less held steady and wireless phone companies have begun actually giving more for less as technology allows. This could be largely in part due to T-Mobile, which jolted the industry a while back by getting the handset subsidy *out* of the monthly rate, and as a separate line item where it belonged to begin with. This is fairer to everyone, and has opened up the realistic possibility of buying unlocked phones from third parties (at least on GSM networks). Now, one can upgrade phones when one desires (and one’s finances allow), rather than being stuck in a never-ending series of two-year contracts. It also means if one really likes a phone, one can keep it until it literally wears out or falls apart.

Who knows what the next eight years will bring us?

AT&T’s blame game: the Andrew Aurenheimer case

I haven’t been following the Andrew Aurenheimer case as closely as I perhaps should have.

But recently I read VentureBeat’s story of the night before and Rolling Stone’s story of the sentencing. And I find this case more than a bit unsettling.

Andrew’s alleged “crime” for which he will serve 41 months in Federal prison stems from a just plain boneheaded lapse in security on the part of AT&T, which Andrew was trying to get closed.

From the VentureBeat story:

During the summer of 2010, Auernheimer and co-defendant Danile
Spitler discovered that by querying AT&T’s iPad servers with a string of numbers that matched subscribers’ SIM card identifiers, AT&T’s servers would send back the unencrypted, unprotected email address of the AT&T customer, the iPad owner. AT&T had a massive security design flaw, which, as it admitted in Auernheimer’s one-week trial, was intentional: for subscriber convenience. After running the script to capture 114,000 email addresses of AT&T iPad subscribers, Auernheimer sent a list of the email addresses to Gawker to highlight the security hole. Gawker then printed them in redacted form.

Later in the VentureBeat story:

“We sent [HTTP] Get requests to a public API,” Auernheimer says. “They charged me with unauthorized access to a computerized device … and identity theft, which is a possession charge … if you walk down a street and write down physical addresses, you’re stealing identifiers, and you’re an identify thief.”

If you’re reading this, and thinking “this is just plain ludicrous” you’re not alone. If anyone should be prosecuted in a criminal court, it’s an AT&T employee for letting this happen. “Subscriber convenience” is an extremely poor excuse for this kind of thing.

The VentureBeat article goes into much more detail, which I’m not going to quote, on the implications. It would be one thing if Andrew had an AT&T employee’s password or similar access control information and got the 114,000 email addresses that way. But what Andrew’s trial sets as precedent is that any one of us could, in theory, be arrested just on the whims of the owner of an Internet-connected computer for what is perceived as “unauthorized access”.

It’s extremely difficult if not outright impossible to have a blog like this one for over four years, and throughout that entire time, completely avoid talking about someone who would rather not be talked about in a given context or even at all. In fact I know I’ve done this at least twice on this blog (probably more than that, but twice that I can easily remember). Based on this, if I access someone’s blog who doesn’t want me talking about them, to quote what they are saying, it can be labeled “unauthorized access”. And I could, in theory, be subject to the same 10 years in prison Andrew was facing, for accessing a public blog entry, the same way AT&T accidentally made public its subscriber info which it should not have. And so could anyone else, in theory. All they would need is a prosecutor willing to go along.

The EFF is leading the charge to reform the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), the law under which Andrew was prosecuted. If you can help the EFF, please do so. I hope Andrew wins his appeal. Because if the court system is about justice, then the court system really failed us here, because this is quite emphatically not justice.

Net neutrality: why we need it, now

Okay, for those of you who don’t know, I’m going to try to explain just what net neutrality is, and why we need it now more than ever.

First, we have the recent attempt by Comcast to block Internet-based video services such as Netflix and Hulu. (Most of the news reports about this have only mentioned Netflix, however some Twitter users I am following seem to have implied that Hulu might be getting blocked as well.) There is no good reason for this other than a control freak mentality on the part of Comcast, who might block YouTube and Vimeo next unless they are stopped.

That’s bad enough. But you know what really hacks me off? This article on Engadget which shows what some Internet providers want to do: charge specific tolls and set specific bandwidth limits and restrictions on access to selected Internet sites. Facebook will cost, say, an extra 2 cents per megabyte, and YouTube will be capped at 60 kilobytes/second with an extra 50 cent fee per month. The frightening thing? There’s nothing stopping an Internet provider from just up and blocking blogs like the one you’re reading now, or to charge an arbitrarily high fee to read them.

I pay very little to keep my blogs online; the traffic charges are at worst $1 per gigabyte (and go down as I accumulate more total traffic over the lifetime of the account). And none of that is paid by my readers. I intentionally accept no advertising on this blog; I am open to the idea of accepting it on my other currently active blog, Quinn’s Big City, but as a practical matter the readership numbers are not high enough to make it feasible right now.

This is about profit for Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Vodafone don’t want you to hear. I’m getting the message out now while I still can. Because there’s no telling when it’ll cost you an extra 25 cents per megabyte to read my blogs, if you can at all. Every blogger should be worried about this, especially those who blog on controversial topics and call out the corporations, particularly those in the large to gargantuan size range, for greed like this.

The last thing the Internet needs is a bunch of greedy companies throwing up tollbooths in front of Internet services “just because.”

Failing to deliver: a ripoff by AT&T

Mark Brimm recently wrote a blog entry about AT&T and its failure to deliver on purchased search engine advertising:

So here’s the scoop. Basically, this all started back in about July of 2009, when I decided I would give AT&T’s online search a try. It started out kind of innocuously. $75/mo or so for their lowest level of service. And I mean low…I got no traffic whatsoever (unless you count a few clicks while speaking to the account rep on the phone!). Then I decided maybe I was just being cheap, so I slowly inched the account power up a notch little by little until I’m being billed for $300+/mo for a listing at the very top on a page that comes up for a loose group of very targeted local keyword phrases that my account rep assures me is being showered with over 1,000 visits per month.


Eventually, this became a billing issue. I told them I wanted out. They said that I had agreed to a year contract. I said I didn’t get what was stated in the contract. They said they’d send it to collections and it would then go on my credit report. I told them I’d file with the BBB, tell the world my story, and sue them if they did. They said “that’s fine”.

Maybe the representative didn’t grasp the concept of negative publicity. It’s kind of a sad state of affairs when it is typical for the “peasant level” employees of a company to be able to dismiss three threats (BBB, negative PR, and legal) with a simple “that’s fine.” At the least, a competent phone rep would at least escalate the call at this point. (Though, at some companies it’s policy to immediately disconnect the caller upon a legal threat and only communicate via surface mail from that point on. To be fair about it, at the point where Mark felt this necessary, he wasn’t losing much by this treatment, even if that was policy at AT&T which apparently it is not.)

Either way, AT&T didn’t deliver on the contract, and a contract works both ways. Most contracts involve payment for services rendered: customer pays, company provides services and/or goods. Services or goods are not due if payment is not received, and likewise, payment is not due if the provider fails to provide service/goods. It’s the latter part that companies like AT&T forget rather conveniently.

According to the comments on the post, Mark’s not the only one with trouble with AT&T’s advertising department; others recorded their tales of woe alongside his. This doesn’t bode well for the undoubtedly busy public relations department at AT&T. It also looks bad when Mark’s account representative is difficult to contact, which I will concede may be unintentional. But under the circumstances, it’s still damned suspicious.

Killing the landline: a dubious idea

A recent Lockergnome post details AT&T’s surprising request to the FCC: setting a date for the sunset of analog landline service.

And my take on this may surprise many, but I think this is a mistake. I have noticed a steady decline in the quality of telephone communications ever since the rise of the wireless phone. Prior to 1990 sudden disconnects were relatively rare. They did happen, but not how they happen now. During frequent marathon phone conversations with a friend of mine about a year or so ago, we used the phrase “kitchen phone” or “bathroom phone” every time a call got dropped when I was in those rooms of the house. It was crazy. This never happened with a cordless phone plugged into a landline.

I will admit I have only occasionally used VOIP lines (similar to a landline, except the call is routed over the Internet) and I don’t use Skype. (I had a Gizmo account some years ago but never really used it.) I have called a Skype number and there have been a couple of times where the line quality became unusable (the last 5-6 seconds of the call would just start repeating like a broken record and/or skipping and glitching like a scratched CD).

Plus there is the issue of emergencies. Text messaging (and I’ve posted before on the outrageous markup on text messages) is sometimes the only usable application on a wireless network after a disaster. During a power outage it is very likely that VOIP service will be completely unusable. Analog landlines have been built to function after some disasters; they aren’t disaster-proof by any means, but they are the most likely type of telephone to be usable after, say, a hurricane or tropical storm hits.

Pay phones have been a traditional backup to mobile phones, and would also potentially be affected by the sunset of analog landlines. This is especially true for areas where cell tower coverage is spotty, although having a phone croak (low battery, or sudden failure) can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. I’m not expecting the huge wall of payphones inside of shopping malls like we would have seen up until the early 1990s, but it’s reassuring to know the option is there. I dread explaining to my future kids that yes, that thing the guy in the movie put a quarter in is a telephone.

At minimum, work-alike alternatives to analog landlines need to be deployed that are equally reliable. That is, in fact, the one thing I miss about landline phone calls: reliability. It’s enough to make the likes of Alexander Graham Bell roll over in his grave.