What I found shocked me. And it all started with a visit to that little shop Wireless R Us on Flatbush between Parkside and Woodruff next to the ridiculously entertaining Closeout Heaven. Here's how it went down. I was in Closeout Heaven one day bargaining with the Algerian brothers about how much to pay for a gargantuan box of wet Swiffer sheets when I happened to pull out my phone and complain out loud that it was busted. "Take it next door, they're amazing, they can do anything." Well by gum that's exactly what I did. The Lebanese guy (the one missing a bunch of fingers, but who is incredibly nimble with the stubs) was able to fix it no problem and didn't charge me. A few weeks later I went in there because his cell store was selling $99 air conditioners. During the course of that sale, he walked me down to the T-Mobile store just north of Popeyes. "Huh?" I said. "You own this place too?" "No, I just manage it." But he had other air conditioners there. This was getting interesting. Over the next year or so, Mrs. Q and I would take our Blackberries in there for routine problems. They even managed to find me an outdated replacement model just like the one I'd had before dropping it in the toilet, all so I wouldn't have to learn any of this new iPhone/Android technology. (I've always been a proud late adapter to new digital stuff, but this particular bit of obstinacy was ridiculous...everyone else was snapping great pictures, listening to music, surfin' le web, and downloading these annoyingly named "killer apps" while I was busy forcing my fat fingers into silly bendy shapes to type on a Lilliputian keyboard.) So my sitch was thitch: I was on the T-Mobile, hating them for not having service up in North Adams, MA where I go each July for work, hating the "Blackberry surcharge" and generally feeling like an idiot for not understanding the first thing about any of it.
But something the guy's bright eyed partner said really stuck with me one day. "Why do you want to pay more money just so they can tease you with a cheaper phone? None of my customers would be stupid enough to sign a contract." Really? You mean all these cats bouncing in and out of his store, some with wads of cash mind you, had a secret that I just didn't get? I immediately asked for a tutorial in all things cell, and instead of shooing me out the door, to my surprise he explained it to me in much clearer Cellular English than I'd ever heard before. This was about a year ago, and my life has COMPLETELY changed since. Well, at least the cell part of my life, which you must admit in this day and age is a pretty big part of ALL of our lives.
So it turns out that all the while we "contract" phone people have been resignedly paying the big networks half our paychecks to keep up with the Phone Joneses, smart, often poor, urban folks have been squeezing great deals out of the providers by going prepaid. Frankly I didn't understand what prepaid even meant...I assumed it had something to do with all that cash that people were coming into the store with. And yes, that's part of it. I sort of assumed I was supposed to feel sorry for the prepaid crowd. But what was really happening was that the major networks AND a whole host of new Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) were allowing people to pay exactly what they wanted for exactly what they needed WITHOUT a contract and its stiff penalties for early departure. In most cases, they weren't even paying taxes and surcharges and those ridiculous little numbers at the back of your bill. In order to keep growing, the networks started customizing plans to fit the needs and pocketbooks of all manner of folk. (Haven't you ever wondered how EVERYONE in the world has a cell phone, even in countries where average wages are like a buck a day? SOMEone must be subsidizing that, right? Maybe cell service really IS that cheap in reality, and like pharmaceuticals, Americans just get reamed.)
What I discovered (and of course plenty of you are screaming "duh" at your iPlaids) is that there are really only four big cell networks, and that all these other companies (I'm now on Virgin Mobile, my wife on Simple Mobile) buy time on THEIR networks. There are literally dozens of companies doing this now. Check out this list.This is because after building hundreds of thousands of cell towers all across the country, the biggies have extra bandwidth beyond what they use with their own customers. So they wholesale those data nuggets to these virtual operators who can then seriously discount to prepaid customers. This became so popular that even the big boys had to start doing it to compete, though usually at higher rates.
Who are the big boyz? You already know them...Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. There's a couple smaller ones, but the point is that nearly all those companies you see advertised are really EXACTLY the same as V,A,T and S, or VATS as I just coined them. Even more interesting is that everyone I talk to claims that there's is the BEST of VATS, fastest, less droppage, more complete, though studies have been done showing that none of the four is a head and shoulders best. As I've found out traveling through the NE, certain networks don't get where you need them to go. End of story. But all VATS have their adherents, and it's just plain wrong to say that one is the best in all circumstances. They all work pretty okay wherever there are a fair number of people living. With annoying exceptions to each.
My Virgin Wireless? Folks, it's $35 a month. I don't talk anywhere near the 300 minutes I'm allowed. Who talks on the phone except to customer service people? And for $45 a month I could talk a blue streak. That whole unlimited data nonsense? Most people simply don't need it. You'd have to be downloading TONS of music, TV and/or games directly onto your very own phone to need a data plan at all. Web surfing and email and most apps take up next to nada in data. $35. And I'm fine. I'm living to tell the tale. Nothing has changed, and I've more than halved my monthly bill.
The catch? You gotta pay full price for a phone. But think about it. Even if they tease you a FREE brand spanking new iPhone, you'd still save money over two years. I bought a great $200 Samsung Androidy thingy and I've already paid for it in savings. Plus I can cancel anytime, change plans, change phones. Maybe even try the awesomely named Ting mobile. You can get used phones for cheap, or take your great aunt's when she passes. You could swipe someone's RIGHT OUT OF THEIR HAND!! Wait, don't do that...
Love to hear your phone stories. I'm just giddy with freedom. I pass by the Wireless R Us guys now and nod a knowing kind of nod, and they nod back, now that I'm not quite so much of a clueless sucker anymore.
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