The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Insane Phone Store That Skooled Me

The Q is curious like a cat. When he doesn't understand something, something that actually affects his life, he gets metaphorical hives. For years now, I've been totally flummoxed by the way cell phones operate, and the byzantine world of plans and networks and providers all the way down to the very phones themselves. Has it not struck you as absurd that every time you lose or change a phone you end up signing for an additional two years with a single company? That harkens back to Ma Bell stuff. How is that competitive, or even legal? Why is it that my otherwise genius friends shrug when I ask them why or how they chose their current carrier and plan? I've heard so many things said and repeated through the years that just don't sound right. I just HAD to get a handle on it. And the best way to do that was to become a free agent. Ditch my plan, which I can't even remember why I got in the first place. Oh, something about sharing a plan with my wife. But even though we're a "family plan," our bills are more than twice what other people were paying for individual plans. (It's like the "marriage tax" all over again.)

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.

Hey guys! Free advertising for your logos below!


60 minutes said...

My pre-paid T-Mobile plan gives me 1,500 minutes a month for $30.

The prepaid plans are the ones favored by drug dealers and other miscreants who want to remain unknown in case someone's listening in.

The cell phone world is converging and is almost like gasoline. All cars run on the gas available at any gas station. Or maybe it's closer to computers. Apple vs PC.

In the land of cell phones, there are only two technologies: CDMA and TDMA.

Code Division Multiple Access and Time Division Multiple Access. CDMA is bigger in the US, but TDMA is bigger almost everywhere else.

Yes, the discount you get on a phone if you sign for two years is not what it might seem. But putting the new iPhone in the hands of subscribers has become so costly for the VATS, or VAS (it's possible T Mobile doesn't offer the iPhone yet) that earnings have been hit.

This is good news for Nokia, which makes a great smart phone for a lot less. Maybe Nokia will make a come-back?

Nemo said...

I take it a step further and buy minutes from T-Mobile in $100 chunks at 10 cents/min. No monthly plan needed. I make calls so rarely I usually don't spend more than $200/year.

The Snob said...

I have been feeling like a chump about this a lot lately. But a chump's gotta bide out the contract before he can unchump himself, right?

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Most providers have a pro-rated deal if you quit. So if it's $200, it's $100 after one year, and $50 after 18 months. Worth looking into.

babs said...

I'm on Credo Mobile so I don't support AT&TeaParty any more.

RKleege said...

Today's NY Times has an article that says more or less exactly what you say here! Talk about in synch….