“Mom!!! Uncle Mike is calling from Greece!!!!” I remember hysterically shrieking to my mother in the garden in 1983 as though, as the clock ticked on that Athens-to-New Hampshire call, we were all out of oxygen in “Gravity.”
The same terror can be found in digital times around the dread International Roaming Charges. The last time I was in Canada I called Verizon about getting some email on my phone and was treated to a chilling disquisition on how International Roaming Charges could land me in Chapter 11 and mandatory Debtors Anonymous before the day was out unless I bought my way out of purgatory with set of incomprehensible packages.
I ended up thanking Verizon profusely for looking out for me, as I gratefully paid hefty protection against those International Roaming Charges. The word for this ancient con game — extortion — never crossed my mind.
Extortion still didn’t cross my mind, in fact, until I read David Pogue’s article in the New York Times about T-Mobile turning cell-world reformer.
It seems the global street thug known as International Roaming Charges was, gasp, never a real menace but a bogeyman invented by the cellphone carriers themselves. Verizon operators — and AT&T operators, and Sprint and the others — weave ghost stories about IRC muggings to get us to pony up. And we do.
As Pogue puts it, “I’ve always assumed that there’s some reason for [roaming charges]. International tariffs, maybe. Special equipment. Something. It couldn’t be as simple as outrageous, consumer-hostile greed, could it?”
Oh but it could! And how do we know? T-Mobile — to general amazement — is now offering free and unlimited data and texts all over our big blue marble as just part of its regular deal. With this move, T-Mobile continues a bewildering pattern of price-unfixing not seen in telecom since the forced breakup of AT&T in 1984.
For too long since that historic trust-bust, phone companies have added fees and charges and penalties using words no honest citizen should have to encounter, like “overage.” So we all should welcome this bold move on the part of T-Mobile, the uncoolest major carrier.
In a desperate attempt to win customers, the company started extending surprising olive branches to battle-scarred telecom cynics in March. First the company made T-Mobile, of all things, quittable. No more indentured two-year contracts.
Then T-Mobile got more radical still and disappeared the time- and money-murdering header on voice mail. (“If you’re satisfied with your message”?!)
Finally — on a true reformist tear, the Ataturk of cell carriers — T-Mobile dropped the convention of never letting you actually pay off the phone that comes subsidized with your cell plan.
All three of these gouging techniques were thought to be just business as usual in the cell-carrier syndicate. (“The big carriers have created a perception that it costs this much. But it really doesn’t,” Mike Sievert, T-Mobile’s chief marketing officer, told Pogue in the Times. “It’s just that they’ve gotten away with charging us these bloated 90 percent profit margins.”)
And now T-Mobile has introduced unlimited and free roaming on data and text, everywhere on Earth. (Calls are 20 cents a minute.) This comes automatically with your plan. You don’t call in a panic from the Heathrow baggage claim only to get the terrifying Roaming Charges spiel.
Go to T-Mobile and check to see how well it has your area covered. T-Mobile coverage is strong by me, so I’m making the switch. And then I’m going to celebrate my way: in Toronto, holed up in a hotel room, reminiscing about childhood analog phone calls on Ma Bell, and writing 1,984 free and unlimited emails.