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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 6

Down with Double Data Fees!

And other proclamations that should be in a cell phone user's Bill of Rights



Illustration by Brian Taylor

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Lifestyle, establish Fairness, ensure blood pressure Tranquility, provide for the common Text Messager, promote less Outrage and secure Cell phone Service that’s anywhere near as good as it is in Other Countries, do ordain and establish this Cellular Bill of Rights.

Article 1. The Subsidy Repayment must end Sometime.
The carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint) provide to us very inexpensive phones. We love getting a $650 iPhone 4S for $200!

But we get that handsome price only when we agree to a two-year contract. In other words, we’re paying off the real price over two years of payments. The carriers are subsidizing the phones.

Which is a good system. Yet what happens once the subsidy has been repaid? After the two-year period, we’re paying only for the service. Our monthly payment should therefore drop automatically.

Article 2. We need not Voicemail Instructions.
When we leave a voicemail, we hear a greeting—then instructions. “To page this person, press 4. To leave a callback number, press 5. When you have finished recording, you may hang up.”

The carriers say these instructions exist for the benefit of those who have never used voicemail (assuming they exist). The real reason for the instructions is, of course, to eat up our airtime and charge us more money. Verizon alone has 108 million customers. If they reach those infuriating messages twice a business day, they wind up paying Verizon about
$1 billion a year.

Those pointless instructions should be optional.

Article 3. Text Messages being only Data, the Carriers should make them less Expensive.
We can send all the e-mail we want, with no per-message charge—­but we’re still paying 20 cents for each text message. At that rate (20 cents per 160 characters), that’s nearly $1,500 a megabyte.

Even if we sign up for unlimited texting, we’re still paying way too much. Text messages should be included with our data plans.

Article 4. The People should decide how to Use the Data they’ve Bought.
We can pay extra for tethering so that a laptop can get online wirelessly using our phone’s data connection. It’s great for anyone not in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

But we’re already paying for a data plan. Why can’t we use the data any way we want? Verizon’s iPad plan has the right idea: you buy the data you need, and you can then tether several devices (via Wi-Fi) to get them online, too. It should work the same way with phone plans.

Article 5. We shall not be Double-Billed.
When a person calls a friend, the carriers charge both of them. A 10-minute call costs 20 minutes. Isn’t that called double billing?

Same thing with text messages. When I send you a text message, we’re each charged for one message. How is that fair? In Europe, only the sender or the recipient pays. That’s fair.

Article 6. International Calls should cost much Less.
The carriers still charge us $2 or $5 a minute to make cell phone calls when we’re out of the country. Hear me now, carrier people, we live in the age of Skype, iChat and Google Talk. We can make free calls from anywhere to anywhere on the Internet. How can you justify $5 a minute?

Listen: last year AT&T and Verizon alone made $14 billion in profits. How about sending us fewer bills for service—and more Bills of Rights?

This article was published in print as "Down with Double Data Fees!"

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