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?

Mobile phone exclusivity agreements under fire

Reports from both ITworld and Infoworld detail an inquiry from four US Senators to the FCC, regarding the exclusivity arrangements wireless phone manufacturers (such as Apple and Palm) have been making with wireless telephone carriers (such as AT&T and Sprint).

This follows an FCC petition by the Rural Cellular Association asking the former to investigate these exclusivity arrangements.

The timing couldn’t be worse for AT&T, as the telecom giant is dragging their feet to support MMS and tethering, among other things. Apple’s other carrier partners worldwide have been able to handle this without issue.

However, it should be noted that AT&T is not the only wireless telephone carrier in the crosshairs of the Senators and the FCC. T-Mobile and Sprint are known to have made exclusivity deals as well, which would undoubtedly be subject to the same scrutiny.

All of this is definitely a step in the right direction towards respecting the freedom of wireless phone users, or in other words, the rest of us. It is long overdue, but there is still a lot of work to do once exclusivity agreements are seen for what they are: anti-competitive collusion.

There is still a lot of cleaning up to do after this, however. Most notably, it would greatly benefit the wireless telephone users if there was one and only one standard in use: GSM. CDMA needs to go the way of the dodo, the sooner the better; the network design takes a significant amount of freedom out of the hands of the user, where it belongs. I consider myself rather technologically literate, and I did not know this until fairly recently (about a year or so ago).

GSM networks and phones use SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards for authentication and identification (or how the network tells which phone belongs to which user). If one wants to change phones, one simply powers down the old phone, removes the SIM card from the old phone (usually hidden behind the battery to make it impossible to remove while the phone is powered on), inserts the SIM card into the new phone, and powers the new phone on. The carrier (phone company) never has to get involved.

On a CDMA phone, it’s nowhere near that simple. One has to take the new phone into the store and have a staff member key in a bunch of magic numbers, and make changes on the wireless network so the new phone is recognized as legitimate. The wireless telephone carriers have the control; they can choose not to let you use the new phone on their network at all if they see it fit. It is, in fact, in the carrier’s best interest to get the customer to buy a brand new phone instead of re-activating an older model.

I have been told that Sprint will not activate non-Sprint phones for their service (i.e. phones not branded for use with Sprint). I would not be surprised if Verizon (and any other CDMA carriers?) adopt a similar policy.

Fortunately, we may actually see the demise of CDMA in our lifetime. Verizon is already in the process of changing over to GSM; that would leave Sprint as the last national US CDMA carrier in existence.