I landed in India and gingerly switched on my cellphone. The last time I switched on my phone in India, 3 years ago, my phone had scanned the universe for a long time before giving up. No signal. One would think it was looking for signs of extra terrestrial life rather than a mere mobile signal. This time, after just a few minutes, it lit up and said “Vodafone”.
Aha! I thought. My cellphone works here! As if in response, my phone beeped and showed me that I had one new message.
It was then that I started to panic. What if I open the message, or talk on the phone? Would I get slammed with some huge roaming bill? I remembered horror stories of people who had unknowingly racked up huge bills, and realized sadly that I actually had only a brick after all.
It’s a very shocking sensation – being without a cellphone. You feel somewhat lost, and the withdrawal symptoms are acute. I had gone just a few minutes without a phone, and was starting to feel quite lost already.
“You can always change the SIM card”, V told me helpfully. “I have an extra SIM card lying around that I can give you.”
“You don’t understand”, I said in the plaintive tone of someone who does not understand too well herself. “I cannot change the SIM card. My phone is locked!”
“Well, unlock it then. Or have you forgotten the password?” V asked me.
“No, no, only my cellphone provider can unlock it”, I wailed.
“I am sure there are stores here that will unlock it for you, “ V added more helpfully. “They can do anything here.”
“Yeah, but they might do something to my phone.”
“Okay, don’t use the phone then. But what is this ringtone? Sounds great, can you send it to me on Bluetooth?”
“No, no”, I panicked. “They might ding me on data charges. See? It wants me to specify a network even for Bluetooth transfers.”
V paused, amazed. “You guys are completely at the mercy of your cellphone providers”, he said.
Then he took pity on me, and handed me a cellphone for my use while in India. This was an old phone, but you would never know, looking at it – small, sleek and much better looking than mine. Then he texted (or SMSed) somebody, and soon I had international calling activated too. My withdrawal symptoms magically disappeared.
I hid my brick in my handbag. I was not going to need it for the next few weeks.
But the whole experience made me wonder – why are we in the US so tied to our cellphone providers? It’s true that we get phones at a fraction of the price, but we pay much more in the expensive monthly payments on the one or two-year contracts that we get locked into.
We cannot switch providers if we don’t like the service, or unlock our phones without the provider’s “approval”. We cannot buy just any phone – because phone models are “customized” by the providers, so all phones will not work with all providers. So if you want an iPhone, for instance, you are stuck with AT&T. You also won’t see all the features of the phone, just those that your provider shows you. For more ringtones, or wallpapers, you have to pay up.
If we wanted to a switch to a plan with more minutes, or switch to a different phone, we would have to contact the provider, who would usually draw up a new, extended contract. What’s worse, some companies like Sprint were even extending contracts without the consumer’s knowledge. Doesn’t it remind you of the Hotel California – you can check out any time but you can never leave?
In contrast, anyone in India can upgrade their phone simply by buying a new one and switching SIM cards. They can switch providers whenever they want – imagine the bargaining power that gives the customer. I believe that mobile number portability is also not too far off, which should remove the last hesitation anyone would have in switching providers.
Isn’t that how free markets are supposed to work? Why are we in the US making do with an oligopolistic model?
As for the service plans themselves – in the US you are charged for every minute you speak – whether you make the call or receive it. The number of “free minutes” change by plan, (basic plans are usually 450 free minutes per month). On the other hand, nights and weekends are free. But “nights” are usually defined as after 9 p.m., and if your friends are in a different time zone, one of you may end up consuming minutes. Oh, and you will get billed for all the wrong numbers you receive. If you haven’t signed up for the “Do Not Call” registry (and for the first few weeks after you sign up), you will get telemarketers’ calls, and you will get billed for those as well.
I loved the notion of “free incoming calls” that you have in India. As if that were not enough, Virgin Mobile now has this offer of paying for incoming calls – apparently, they’ll pay you 10 paisa for each minute you are on an incoming call.
Nokia’s phones are so sleek and beautiful too. As I mentioned, my own phone lay hidden in my handbag, and I never used it. I was very glad about it too. I love my phone, a Sony Ericsson W810i, and I had always thought it was a cute small phone. But until I saw those Nokias, I had no idea that my 2 cm thick phone is – let’s face it, fat! Here I have this little tubby thing, and everyone else has these svelte Nokias with waistlines that were a quarter of my phone’s. The American concept of supersizing extends, no doubt, to cellphones too.
So perhaps, even if my phone had been unlocked, I would never have dared to use it anyway. I used a little Nokia all the time I was in India. It was only after I was safely back in JFK, in supersized phone territory, that I took out my phone again.
No one would laugh at my phone here.